The Legacy of Holmes: Television

With A Study in Scarlet, published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual 1887, Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, arguably the most well-known fictional detective in the world. Holmes has become an icon, continually inspiring adaptations and reimaginings of his stories. Next year promises a new interpretation from director Guy Ritchie with Robert Downey Jr. as Holmes and Jude Law as Watson.


More than the spin-offs and adaptations, however, Holmes’ methods have inspired many imitators. Holmes was a keen observer, often assembling his solutions from collections of details—the type of footprints left in the mud at a crime scene, a particular type of tobacco, the smudge of ink on the inside of a finger. This focus on detail, on observation first and foremost, has been used by many popular television investigators.


USA’s mystery series is light-hearted, humorous and quirky, and while the character of Shawn Spencer pretends to be a psychic aiding the police, his true power is the power of observation. Only by noticing the smallest details is he able to fake his psychic abilities, deducing things about the crimes he investigates. Compare this to Holmes who was often thought to be a mind reader for the conclusions he would make. Sean has his own “Watson,” as well—Burton “Gus” Guster, a pharmaceutical salesman and Shawn’s longtime best friend. Gus acts much in the same role as Watson does, lacking Shawn’s observational skills but possessing his own unique abilities and point of view, helping to support Shawn in his outlandish schemes, often to his own detriment.

Shawn also has to work with and around the Santa Barbara police department, particularly two officers who rarely have an idea of what is really happening (much like in the Holmes mysteries). As a consultant, Shawn basically feeds them the solution via his psychic role.

The capers in Psych are played mostly for laughs, but the camaraderie between the two main characters and their ease with one another elevates this show above mediocrity. (Plus it has plenty of geek references).

Pysch airs at 10 PM (Eastern) on the USA network.

The Mentalist

Similar to Psych, Patrick Jane, the lead character of CBS’ The Mentalist was a fake psychic in the past, a medium in the vein of John Edwards. Using his powers of observation, he would read people, earning a successful living. However, when his wife and child were murdered by a serial killer, Jane ended up working for the fictional California Bureau of Investigation instead. Now he uses the same skills he used as a fake psychic to help solve crimes. While Jane uses a number of different techniques, including hypnotism, observation is his most useful tool.

Like Shawn Spencer, and Sherlock Holmes, Patrick Jane isn’t a police officer, though he works with them as a consultant. It’s common in episodes to have the team questioning his methods and conclusions while at the same time marveling at his strange ability to know things that seem unknowable. While Jane is arguably more personable than Holmes, able to charm and cajole people (from reading them), he is somewhat out of touch with the people around him. Many times, in the investigation of a case, he seems oblivious to the damage he causes and almost is amused by it in the pursuit of the truth.

The Mentalist airs on the CBS network, Tuesdays at 9PM.


Perhaps the most Holmes-like series on television, House is not a police or detective show, but instead a medical mystery series. However, House is very clearly inspired by Conan Doyle’s detective. Aside from the similarity in names, Gregory House is a brilliant man with keen observational talents which he uses, in this case, for medical diagnosis. House is also a drug addict, a musician (piano and guitar rather than violin) and his main passion is his work investigating mystery illnesses. His Dr. John Watson is Dr. James Wilson, an oncologist at the hospital and House’s only friend. That role is also assumed by House’s team of doctors who assist him in his activities (though sometimes they resemble more closely the Baker Street irregulars as House’s street team, breaking into houses to gather information).

House is a largely unlikable man, and, like Holmes, cares only about the case in front of him, and practically nothing about the people afflicted with the strange conditions he sees. He is single-minded in his pursuit of the truth, and chooses to believe facts and observations over what people tell him. One of his favorite phrases, uttered many times throughout the series, is that “people lie.”

The series’ writers seem to deliberately invite the comparison, too. In one episode, House’s apartment was clearly shown to be 221b (Holmes lived on 221b Baker Street) and in a recent episode, Wilson made reference to an Irene Adler, who was a character in the Holmes story, “A Scandal in Bohemia.” In another episode, Holmes is shot by a man credited as “Moriarty.” In a recent Christmas episode, House receives a gift of a medical book by Joseph Bell, a doctor whom Conan Doyle used as the basis for Holmes.

House airs Monday nights at 8 PM on the Fox network.


While not patterned after Holmes, the connection between Holmes’ use of forensic evidence and the modern forensic investigations can’t be overlooked. As with Holmes, the various CSI teams use facts and not hunches or intuition to solve crimes. They are taught to ignore those kinds of interpretation and to focus on the data.

In fact, the crime scene investigators on the television series and in real life use modern versions of the same kind of tests that Holmes used, as sensational as they are sometimes portrayed on the screen. It’s highly likely that Holmes would eagerly embrace the facilities and techniques of the modern crime lab as tools for solving crimes.

Various incarnations of CSI  can be found in multiple places at multiple times on cable. New episodes air on CBS.

There are doubtless other series that I have neglected to mention, both from the present and the past. Feel free to suggest others in the comments section.


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