Fri
Apr 6 2012 3:00pm

Can Elementary Actually Be Viewed as a Sherlock Rip-Off?

Since we first heard of the existence of the American version of a contempoary Sherlock Holmes show; Elementary, everyone in the Tor.com office shared a collective groan. (We even went so far as to make a fake mock-up poster, complete with a “What up Holmes?” catchphrase.) And though the recent casting of Lucy Liu as a female Dr. Watson is interesting and progressive, I still can’t help but feel a little annoyed and protective of the BBC’s Sherlock.

Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat has gotten really grumpy, too, admitting in a recent interview that the prospect of a contemporary version of Sherlock Holmes in America has him “annoyed.”

I’m mostly with the Moff on this one, but does he really have a claim to all things Holmes?

British TV shows being turned into American ones is certainly not anything  new. In rare cases the American version is better remembered and more popular than its English counterpart. For example, many people roll their eyes at me when I insist on calling The American version of The Office, “the American Office” because for most viewers in the states The Office is just The Office.

But I’m American and as good as the American Office is (or was) it is still the faux-Office in my book. And in terms of a remade British show being well received and having its own, separate following, the American Office is the exception and not the rule. For the most part these remakes are always bad, get poor ratings, and are forgotten quickly. Moffat’s very own Coupling was remade in America and was canceled faster than anyone can remember. Though one could make an argument that Friends is the American version of Coupling, it certainly isn’t officially. (For terrible recent actual remakes, look no further than Being Human and Life on Mars.)

But like Friends wasn’t Coupling, Elementary isn’t a remake of Sherlock. Just like the idea of 30-somethings bitching about their love-lives wasn’t invented by Moffat with Coupling, the idea of Sherlock Holmes is in the public domain. This puts Team Moffat is in a weird position here, because an American show is poised to potentially be a bigger hit than BBC’s Sherlock. Why? For one thing, they’ll have a bigger budget, better distribution, and likely more episodes. As much as Cumberbatch is becoming a household name among the cool kids, the audience watching Hawaii Five-O and Desperate Housewives has never heard of him, or Steven Moffat. And despite Moffat being totally in the right to be annoyed about this, he might not be able to actually do anything about it, because of the fact that most of all of the Sherlock Holmes text is in the public domain. Further, a TV series based on those characters and stories will automatically have a chance at being well-recieved (no matter who is doing it)  because the source material is just so awesome.

The plot thickens a little bit though when one considers the fact that Moffat already tried to get American studios to do Sherlock, and they said no. Instead, they seemingly stole the idea out right. But is there a smoking gun? Could anyone really prove it? 

This sort of thing happens all the time, but rarely produces a true smoking gun. Gene Roddenberry first took Star Trek to CBS, and at that time the pitch included a spaceship that could land on planets and contained families. When Lost in Space featured a landing ship with a family on CBS, some accounts say Roddenberry freaked out. Similarly, J. Michael Straczynski pitched Babylon 5 to Paramount before Warner Brothers picked it up. Oddly, Deep Space Nine came out around the same time as Babylon 5. Now, I personally don’t think Michael Piller and company ripped off JMS no more than I believe Irwin Allen ripped of Rodenberry, but this double-vision phenomenon is weird.

Right now we’ve got two Snow White movies in the form of Mirror, Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. There are also dueling Beauty and the Beast shows in development. And famously, there’s that summer when you had Deep Impact versus Armageddon, two asteroid movies on a collision course with zero-relevancy. It’s possible the only reason we talk about either to this day is because there were two of them. Armageddon is way more famous, but that’s likely because of the cast and that damn Aerosmith song.

Moffat worries about the Sherlock “brand” being diluted, which really could mean two things. If the American show is a piece of crap, Moffat doesn’t want people comparing it to Sherlock. If Elementary is good, Moffat doesn’t want people comparing it to Sherlock. I don’t blame him either way.

The idea to do a contemporary Sherlock was cooked up by him and Mark Gatiss and they’ve done it wonderfully. Elementary, at least at present, certainly does seem like a “me too” situation. But the Sherlock “brand” Moffat refers to is also coming from him being a big fan of the Doyle canon. He’s gone out of his way to be gracious about the Guy Ritchie films in the past, and that’s because those really have nothing to do with his show. It is strange that within a few months I saw TWO versions of the Reichenbach Falls scene, and each one was vast improvement on the source material. But could we possibly stomach a third Reichenbach? Would the New York Sherlock Holmes have to grapple with some strange Moriarty on top of the Olive Garden in Times Square? Despite having a female Watson, what could the Elementary provide that Sherlock hasn’t already given me?

Despite Moffat’s concern about the repuation of the material, in the end Sherlock Holmes will be fine and likely endure another century of re-interptation and fan scrutiny. But in the short term, we might have to endure the Sherlock Wars, and Moffat might grow grumpier and grumpier as the wars rage on.   Yes, I’m on his side,  but I’m such a big Sherlock Holmes fan that I’ll HAVE to watch Elementary.

And though it’s improbable that Elementary will be good and somehow not a rip off of Sherlock, it’s not impossible.


Ryan Britt is the staff writer for Tor.com. He’s written about Sherlock Holmes for Clarkesworld Magazine and here on Tor.com a lot.

30 comments
Kate Nepveu
1. katenepveu
Despite having a female Watson, what could the Elementary provide that Sherlock hasn’t already given me?

That's . . . really kind of a big "despite," there.
Joe Vondracek
2. joev
American TV already has a version of Sherlock: Psych. Shawn is a quirky Sherlock Holmes, with his observational and deductive skills, and Gus is Dr. Watson, trusty partner and sounding board.

Elementary will probably be just as successful as the American version of Prime Suspect, which only superficially resembled the excellent British show. Maybe they should call this new show "Alimentary", and the gimmick would be the detectives using their deductive abilities to figure out how famous chefs created scrumptious dishes.
Rowan Shepard
3. Rowanmdm3
My friends and I were shocked when our prediction of a female asian Watson came true, but were happy they're keeping Watson a doc and not turning her into a cop like we feared. We will be watching the pilot with popcorn ready yto throw at the tv. I have a sneaking suspicion there will be a lot popcorn on the floor by the time the show is over.
Melanie S
4. starryharlequin
I'm willing to wait and see what they do with Elementary, but I really wish they'd swapped Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller's roles...
Joe Vondracek
5. joev
@4: Now that would be interesting. Also, let's swap Lennie James for Jonny Lee Miller.
Nate_
6. Nate_
@joev

American TV aactually has several different versions of Holmes/Watson, including Bones, House, Castle, and more.

Also a female Watson would be progressive if not for the fact that CBS did it 30 years ago. I'd recommend that you read Lance Mannion post on this. He's good.

http://lancemannion.typepad.com/lance_mannion/2012/02/elementary.html
Nate_
7. Iain Nicholas Mackenxzie
I'm getting seriously pissed at Moffat at the idea that an American version of a show cannot be done given that much of the revenues for his Doctor Who come from tv and DVD sales in the USA. Would he prefer Americans not watch his shows?

Can we also say he's being pisdy for no good reason as his Sherlock is but one version of myriad ones that have been done?

And I'd simply advise anyone who doesn't like the idea of yet another version of Holmes and Watson to simply not watch it, i.e. I skipped the last series of Torhwood because I knew from the description that it'd be awful.
Allana Schneidmuller
8. blutnocheinmal
It could be fun if it's more of a TV version of the movie
They Might Be Giants. Which featured a female Dr. Watson (a psychiatrist) helping a guy who 'became' Sherlock Holmes after his wife died.
Michael Grosberg
9. Michael_GR
This is just like the Battle Royale Vs. Hunger games discussion. People need to realize that the thing that makes a work of art unique is not the general conept - it's the execution and the details.
Bike Baykara
10. Amarie
@joev actually when you look at it there are several TV shows with versions of Sherlock Holmes, Psych is good one, House is another in a medical context, there is also the Mentalist to some extent. We might find a few more if we put our minds into it.

The thing with reinterpreting Sherlock Holmes in a modern context is that Moffat and Gatiss are both massive fans of the orginal text. Being fans I get the idea that every element they reinterpreted they did it with constant questioning whether it would be loyal and fair to the original text. Anything less meticulous would be in a dengourous situation of doing changes just because we can or because it quirky etc. This is my main fear about the CBS series, I would always enjoy new imaginings of Sherlock Holmes, it is always good to have new perspectives on it if it's done well. But if that new interpretation isn't loyal to the works we all love at least in spirit then there is a big problem.
alastair chadwin
11. a-j
While Holmes will survive anything thrown at him I do sympathise with Moffat's irritation, the timing stinks in fact the whole thing smells. Having said that, we've had Holmes in the present day at least once. The Basil Radford films after the first two (I think that's right) were set in the then contemporary '40s and I remember seeing a video cover about a cryogenically frozen Holmes waking up in the '90s. Don't know what the title is.
The greatest annoyance will be if, with CBS's greater distribution, they get credited with the idea of an updated Holmes.
Lucy Liu as Dr Watson looks good though.
Nate_
12. wizard clip
Bill Willingham recently addressed a similar question, whether he felt "Once Upon a Time" or "Grimm", not to mention "Mirror Mirror" and "Snow White and the Huntsman" rip off his "Fables" series. His feeling was essentially similar to Ryan's. In the end, he said, "It's in the air."

But, Ryan, "the audience watching H50 and Desperate Housewives has never heard of" Cumberbatch? Really? A little snobbish, don't you think?
Nate_
13. iucounu
Interesting that Cumberbatch and Miller recently starred in Frankenstein together in the West End, alternating the roles of the doctor and the monster. I wonder if they discussed it?
Nate_
14. James Davis Nicoll
The idea to do a contemporary Sherlock was cooked up by him and Mark Gatiss and they’ve done it wonderfully.

I would like to complain about the people behind Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror for stealing the idea of a modernized Holmes sixty years before Moffatt and Gatiss did it. How dare they use an idea when someone who had not even been born yet clearly had first claim to it?

I would like to also offer 1987's The Return of Sherlock Holmes for a two minutes hate, as its creators were clearly retro-plagiarizing Moffatt's idea for a modern Holmes. And they copied it wrong, too, becaause their version was the 19th century Holmes in the 20th century, not a modern one.
Nate_
15. John R. Ellis
"A little snobbish, don't you think?"

This.

My mother watches both those shows. My sister and I introduced her to BBC's Sherlock last year. Now she adores Cumberbatch.

There's no need for putting on airs.
Keith DeCandido
16. krad
American television already had a contemporary Sherlock Holmes with a female Watson: Law & Order: Criminal Intent.

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Keith DeCandido
17. krad
Also: improving on the original Reichenbach Falls story is about as difficult as putting on a hat. "The Final Problem" may well be the worst story ever written in the English language.....

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
C R L
18. Maac
For all I love much of British television, it would be remiss not to point out that Coupling (2000) was more like British Friends (1994) than the other way around.

(Even if I did get sick, at the time, of hearing everything including Drew Carey, Ellen Degeneres's sitcom, and Living Single called a "Friends clone" when Friends itself was basically a less-episodic riff on Seinfeld.)
C R L
19. Maac
For all I love much of British television, it would be remiss not to point out that Coupling (2000) was more like British Friends (1994) than the other way around.

(Even if I did get sick, at the time, of hearing everything including Drew Carey, Ellen Degeneres's sitcom, and Living Single called a "Friends clone" when Friends itself was basically a less-episodic riff on Seinfeld.)
Nate_
20. Yet Another Geek
Surly Arthur Conan Doyle was the first person to put Holmes in a contemporary setting?
Nate_
21. Mea
Why was my prior comment disappeared? I'll try again.

Sherlock is fun and witty and I enjoy it up to a point, but it sticks to the original source material too well. It is ok to have Sherlock Holmes be Indifferent to antagonistic towards women since that is his character, but I would like the writers of a TV show to not be sexist, and in this decade I would like plots that do not revolve around "nefarious orientals" like the original material did. So I think there is big room for improvement in reconceptulizing Sherlock Holmes for current day, and I hope that the American version does a better job than the too-faithful- to-Victorian prejudices Sherlock.
Joe Vondracek
22. joev
Bill Willingham recently addressed a similar question...
Willingham's response struck me as somewhat disingenuous, given that there have been earlier stories/shows that brought fairy tale characters into modern times, such as the sitcom "The Charmings" from 1988. That predated "Fables" by over a decade, and plot-wise, "Once Upon a Time" bears a stronger resemblance to "The Charmings" than it does to "Fables", at least in terms of how they ended up in our world/time.

In regards to Moffat's comments: I read that as more of a concern that having yet-another Sherlock Holmes series in addition to "Sherlock" and the Downey/Law movies would over-saturate the potential audience pool, hurting his franchise's future prospects. As a producer, that's a legitimate concern, but you know, them's the breaks. As he readily acknowledged, they don't own the Sherlock Holmes character. Even if "Elementary" turns out to be a great show, I wouldn't be surprised if three years from now all of these Holmes incarnations are gone, as audiences grow tired of the character and demand something "new".
Nate_
23. Arthur D.
But didn't the producers of "Elementary" actually visit "Sherlock", and come close to actually licensing that specific take on the Sherlock Holmes genre? Or in other words, are Moffat and company annoyed not because someone is doing another version of Sherlock Holmes, but because someone is copying Moffat's take on Sherlock Holmes, without acknowledgement or payment?
Nate_
24. wizard clip
@joev:

In defense of Willingham and "Fables," I probably didn't represent his perspective clearly. He has never claimed that "Once Upon a Time" or any of the other fairy tale-themed shows or films were ripping him off. He actually made the same point that you do, that he wasn't the first person to bring these fairy tale characters into the modern world. He even mentions "The Charmings."

I think the issue was, similar to the Sherlock kefluffle, ABC had courted Willingham with the idea of turning "Fables" into a series. They ultimately passed on the idea, and then a couple of years later, "Once Upon a Time" shows up. I think one of the producers of "Once..." was even in on the talks with Willingham. In the end he feels, as you do, that nobody owns these characters or themes.

We could turn up lots of examples of this sort of thing ("Is it a rip-off, or is it the zeitgeist?") in popular culture. Does "Harry Potter" plagiarize Neil Gaiman's "Books of Magic"? And what about all of those bat-themed mystery men who showed up in the late 1930s?
Ryan Britt
25. ryancbritt
@1 I suppose I could have worded that a bit better. I'm not perfect. :-)

@14 I have to check all of that out now. Thanks!

@19 Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey.

@20 Ha! Fair.

@21 I think you might be on to something here! Let's hope you're right. And yeah, I'm not crazy about some the subtle backwards stuff in Sherlock either. See my take on "Scandal in Belgravia" for how I was a little offended by the new Irene Adler.

@23
I think it's the latter Moffat is concerned about.

@Everyone- interesting thoughts on the Willingham Fables stuff!
Nate_
26. m. scott veach
i just read the elementary script and it's shockingly good. i'm not sure it borrows much more than the general conceit of a modern-day sherlock from sherlock -- an idea that *everyone* has had at one point or another...

...but far more interesting than the question of who stole what, is the question of whether elementary is any good... i think it's one of the best pilots this year... if they even come close to executing at its potential then it's going to be a huge hit.
Nate_
27. John C. Bunnell
@14: And then there was the early-'90s TV movie (I want to say 1994 Baker Street) that used almost exactly the same concept of a cryo-frozen Holmes and a female Watson, but took its plot in a quite different direction.

Also among the modern Holmes clones on current series TV: Patrick Jane of The Mentalist, who specializes in making classic Holmesian deductions from minutiae at the drop of a cue.
Dave Bell
28. DaveBell
It's partly markets. The BBC, in the UK, isn't the same as CBS, in the USA. Here in Britain, nobody made a big fuss about the Holmes/Watson running gag. The idea that people would wonder if there was a homosexual relationship ia no big deal. But the US echo casts Watson as a woman, making darned sure that nobody is even going to think such things.

No, it's just a mistake when people think that, but the idea that such a mistake is unremarkable seems to be accepted here. You still find people such as Catholic Cardinals being outraged by the idea that Gays might have to be treated like "proper" people, you still get outrage at the idea of Gay ministers of religion, but it's no longer the dreadful revelation that forces a politician to resign in the UK.

So the Holmes and Watson of the modern world are two blokes sharing a flat, and it's natural to just, you know, wonder. And, looked at from the outside, you wonder if a US broadcaster in running scared of even the slightest hint of that possibility.
Mig Archey
29. Quilld
They've been very up front about House, M.D. being derived from Sherlock Holmes. It's even indicated in the character's last name, although Houses would be a bit more blatant. Yes, you have to ignore the 'l' but I often/usually hear it spoken as though without an 'l' and obviously they do/did, too.

I loved They Might Be Giants back in the day. Wonder if it holds up?
Nate_
30. Allons-y
It is a rip off of Sherlock in the sense that it's inspiration comes from there in many of the design elements. I mean even the opening scene is the same. But it isn't anywhere near as good in the sense that Holmes is an emotional wreck all the time on Elementary whereas he is almost as anti emotion as Sheldon in BBT in the Sherlock series. That is what annoys me more than anything.

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