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Interview: Elementary‘s Creator Rob Doherty

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What is it that so fascinates us about Sherlock Holmes that he lives on nearly 100 years after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stopped writing about him? The brilliant consulting detective with a predilection for drugs and the violin – and puzzles has been the central character in post-Conan Doyle novel, multiple film and television series over the years. Still, we continue to be intrigued, and Rob Doherty introduces us to yet another side of Sherlock in the new CBS hit series Elementary.

Veteran television executive producer-writer Doherty has worked on several successful series, including Star Trek: Voyager, Medium, and most recently, Ringer. Starring Jonny Lee Miller (Eli Stone, Trainspotting), Elementary is one of the top rated scripted series on television this season.

Doherty and I spoke at length the other day, about his version of Sherlock Holmes, and how it differs from than anything else Holmesian out there. He teased a bit about this week’s episode (mild spoilers ahead), which guest stars Lisa Edelstein (House, M.D.), as well as several upcoming storylines.

With all the other Holmes franchises out there just now, I was a bit curious about why Doherty wanted to develop another one. Explaining that the idea originally came from Carl Beverly (Unforgettable, A Gifted Man), another executive producer on the series, he told me that the two of them had been trying to come up with a project to do together, something to which they were equally drawn. Beverly offered the idea of doing “Sherlock Holmes in New York City,” according to Doherty. “It never would have occurred to me to tackle Sherlock Holmes. I feel like it’s the kind of thing you need suggested to you.” He elaborated, “Conan Doyle was well over a century ahead of his time.” Building a “prototype,” the author created a character that “you see in so many other detectives in the cinema and on TV,” he said. Doherty loved the “idea of transporting this iconic British character to New York. I thought that was a great idea.” But he also wondered about where to go from there? Where to take the idea, and make it more than a gimmick? “It can’t just be about Sherlock in New York,” Doherty continued. “That feels like that’s one really great element, but what else can we do?”

Doherty is a long-time fan of the original Holmes canon, and “a fan of the character in general,” following the iconic consulting detective into other works: the movies and comic books, and books written by authors other than Conan Doyle. “I wouldn’t say I’m obsessive, but I always enjoyed the character when we crossed paths.” At the time Doherty and Beverly were playing with this idea of doing their own Holmes adaptation for television, the first Robert Downey Jr. film had come out. “And I believe the first series of the BBC show had come out, and thought both were excellent. Really incredible, fast, fun, smart delivery systems for Sherlock Holmes.”

Searching for a new angle, Doherty wondered, “What’s the story we want to tell about this iconic character?” Latching onto Holmes’ relationships with drugs and women, combined with setting the series in New York, helped Doherty define Elementary.  

Setting Sherlock in present-day New York offers the series’ writers some interesting possibilities, allowing them to explore Sherlock from a fresh perspective. “He’s a bit of a fish out of water,” Doherty explained. “He knows London like the back of his hand and he certainly knows the British culture. New York is such a mish-mash, and it’s big, and loud, and complicated, and rude, and wonderful. It’s this incredible soup, and to drop a guy like Sherlock, who is always in control of every situation,” was very appealing to him. But Elementary isn’t really a “fish out of water” series, at least not overtly. Realizing the usual getting lost in the subway system stuff “ultimately it didn’t feel true to the guy,” Doherty hasn’t played that card too often or over the top.

The touches tend to be subtler. Doherty explained, “I think Sherlock’s interactions with the NYPD are, I would imagine, different from what it was like working in Scotland Yard. Certainly in crime scenes and talking to people. We try to pick our moments. Again, whatever feels right given who this guy really is.”

Although many Sherlock Holmes fans consider Scotland Yard Inspector G. Lestrade as the detective’s main police contact Doherty went a slightly different direction, creating an American version of Tobias Gregson (Aidan Quinn). Doherty recalls “Lestrade as sort of a weasely type, and a sort of a glory hound.” On the other hand Doherty recalled that, “Gregson, was a little quieter, a little more intellectual.” But in Doherty’s mind two are a bit interchangeable. No matter the police counterpart, “it always sort of felt like Sherlock was, was perpetually amused by the investigators and what they did. He was very condescending in an essentially a lighthearted way. But it was still condescending,” Doherty said. Playing Gregson, Aidan Quinn brings a great earthiness to the role and an excellent counterpoint to Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes.

Creating a New Holmes

Curious about casting the leads for the show, I asked Doherty about his process. Explaining to me that unlike many writers, he really doesn’t write with any specific casting in his mind’s eye. “The two absolute requirements for me,” he said, “were that Sherlock be British and that Watson be a woman. Otherwise, everything else was fair game.” Doherty got his wish, with the English Miller and the accomplished Lucy Liu (The Man with the Iron Fists) in the pivotal role of Joan Watson.

Once the network decided to go for the pilot, Doherty was sent a list of actors’ names for consideration. “Right up at the top was Jonny. Part of me was embarrassed that it hadn’t occurred to me [before], because I’d always been a huge fan, have watched him in movies. Really loved him in [the television series] Eli Stone a few years ago; it can be trickier to be a star of television in that you’re being invited into somebody’s living room every week.”

Doherty had been “blown away” by Miller’s movie performances, “but I’d never seen him in sort of a steady gig like Eli Stone. And I thought he was incredible,” he said. “As soon as I saw his name, for me it was just a no-brainer slam dunk choice. And very thankfully for all of us, it worked out. We were able to get him.” Physically, Miller fits Conan Doyle’s description of Holmes perfectly: a “thin wiry, dark” man, “with a high-nosed acute face, penetrating gray eyes, angular shoulders.” 

Miller shades his interior portrayal of Holmes in many hues. He is distant and arrogant, but can surprise us with a quick second or two of unexpected emotion. In the last episode, for instance, there is a moment in which Holmes comforts an captive Chechen woman after freeing her from a locked room.

She speaks no English, and Holmes, proficient in her native language, reassures her before embracing her protectively. It’s not the type of moment we might expect from Holmes, but it’s very informative of what both Doherty—and Miller—perceive of Holmes emotional life. “I must credit Jonny in that he can make those switches,” offered Doherty. “Holmes can be alien and other and off-putting and strange. And moments later hold a victim and give her comfort, and you never question that it’s the same guy. Jonny just has this knack for—he’s just found so many different shades for Sherlock. Like I said, it’s been fun for me to watch him build the man.”

Indeed, Miller brings a twitchy fragility to the role; he can play the emotional beats (and, in my opinion broods exceedingly well) but can equally play disdain. That condescension is essential to Sherlock Holmes, said Doherty, noting that Miller “is incredible and surprises me constantly in a lovely way. Again, we felt, with our whole cast, it was a blessed process. We really got lucky.” 

A Character Study Wrapped in a Police Procedural

CBS is known for its legacy of great crime dramas, and in many ways, Elementary fits that formula, but for a police procedural, Elementary spends a substantial amount of time on its two main characters, especially Holmes. Like the late, great medical series House, M.D., which I covered for years, it seems to be a character drama wrapped in a procedural. I wondered if the Doherty’s real intent with Elementary is to unravel the biggest puzzle of all: Sherlock Holmes.  

“You could not be more correct,” Doherty agreed. “One of the things that excited me about doing a Holmes and Watson show is that their domestic arrangement is such an important part of the source material. Our bread and butter at the end of the day, of course, absolutely, it’s our cases. We have to come up with very complicated, strange and fun cases. But I also think we get a lot out of, again, these domestic scenes. You know, going home with these two people. Watching them try to live together. Watching two people who have suffered their own damage. They’re damaged in different ways and are trying to repair themselves and move on.”

Irene Adler

Since the last episode, there had been a lot of chatter around the Internet about Irene Adler. We’ve just learned that she’s dead, and a very painful memory for our Sherlock is really dead. But, some fans are wondering, is she really, truly dead—or is it all a ploy by Sherlock do an end run against the infamous and evil Professor Moriarty, whom we’ve not really heard much about this season. “My lips are sealed,” laughed the series creator. “We want to feed our audience pieces of this bigger mystery. Irene is certainly a big piece. I’m delighted to think that people are asking these kinds of questions and wondering these kinds of things.”

Of course, even if it were all a ruse, Doherty would be unlikely to spill the beans. “I would never want to spoil any surprise, tell someone if they were hot or cold,” he said. “We’ll dollop these things out and build to something that I hope will be special and memorable. But Irene,” he teased, “the most I can say is, yeah, Irene is absolutely very—how do I put this?  I mean, obviously she’s not a character in the show at this point. She may be in flashbacks; we may eventually put a face to the name. But, yeah, we want to move slowly. We don’t want to rush too quickly into things.”

Lisa Edelstein’s Guest Appearance

This week’s episode guest stars Lisa Edelstein, Dr. Cuddy on House, M.D. It will be great to see Lisa’s face on primetime again, even if only for an episode. Doherty explained that Lisa is “playing Heather, the head of a public relations firm that specializes in corporate publicity, corporate issues. The company’s specialty is sort of cleaning up messes. A bomb detonates in a building and Sherlock, through a series or deductions, realizes that somebody at Heather’s company may have been the target. We have some fun stuff to play between her and Sherlock. There’s a bit of a flirtation that goes on,” he revealed. “And it will feel very unique to our show; I’ve always been a huge fan of hers.”

Mild Spoilers Ahoy…

Doherty was also kind enough to share a few tidbits from some upcoming episodes as well, including the introduction of Moriarty. “The sexiest thing I can tell you,” Doherty disclosed, “is that we are inching closer to a story with Moriarty, where we’re getting ready to sort of dip our toe in that water.” That would be in episode 11, which will air January 10. According to Doherty, “It’ll be one of our more mythological episodes. We’ve identified it as a spot to dispense a few more clues about what happened to Sherlock. Why is he in the state that he’s in?  How did he end up in New York?  It will be a big show for us.” 

Confessing that its hard to tease very much without giving too much away, Doherty also mentioned that in a couple of weeks (episode eight) “we’re actually going to get a little deeper into Joan’s backstory, and explore how she came to be a sober companion.” He said that we’ll “meet someone from her past who had quite an impact, and helped sort of put her on that path.”

Episode nine, written by Craig Sweeny (with whom Doherty worked on Medium), is “just a rollicking good time. It’s very, smart and fun and strange.” And it involves Sherlock trying to figure out how an “apparently unbeatable vault was broken into. It’s an Ocean Elevens type break-in. And so Sherlock has to try to figure out what happened. It’s just a lot of fun. And for us it was an opportunity to tell a story that doesn’t necessarily start with the police department.”

Elementary airs Thursday nights at 10 p.m. ET on CBS. A short clip of my interview with Rob Doherty can be heard on this week’s Let’s Talk TV Live broadcast.

Photo images and video courtesy of CBS.


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About Barbara Barnett

Barbara Barnett is publisher and executive editor of Blogcritics, as well as a noted entertainment writer. Author of Chasing Zebras: The Unofficial Guide to House, M.D., her primary beat is primetime television. But Barbara writes on an everything from film to politics to technology to all things pop culture and spirituality. She is a contributor to the book called Spiritual Pregnancy (Llewellyn Worldwide, January 2014) and has a story in Riverdale Ave Press' new anthology of zombie romance, Still Hungry for your Love. She is hard at work on what she hopes will be her first published novel.
  • Lucy H.

    Great interview, thanks. I was hoping that “M” episode title that we saw in a photo the staff tweeted meant Moriarty was coming up. Looking forward to that.

  • barbara barnett

    Thanks Lucy! I’m guessing that’s the “M” episode :)

  • Lucy H.

    By the way, I heard you say the other day that you’re watching Eli Stone but it’s a little too sweet for your taste. … I can relate, although I do think it was quite an admirable show and a nice attempt to do some innovative things.

    For anybody who’s curious about the range of JLM’s acting skills and the depth of his emotional reserves (and if you can stand BBC costume dramas), I recommend the distinctly non-sweet BBC two-part mini-series Byron. Not the best written thing in the world, but available on Netflix and extremely well acted, by Miller especially, but also by the rest of an amazing cast that includes Vanessa Redgrave, Natasha Little and Philip Glenister.

  • barbara barnett

    I’m enjoying Eli Stone very much (sweet as it is). JLM is quite good. I really enjoyed him Plunkett and Macleane as well (a bit bizarre of a movie, but with the benefit of putting him together with one of very favorite actors, Robert Carlyle) 😉

  • Lucy H.

    I really like RC as well. It was nice to see him get such a cool show as Once Upon a Time — and I think he’s great in it.

    I find myself recommending Plunkett and Macleane when somebody asks me if I can think of anything that’s just silly, escapist fun. Liv Tyler aside, the cast there can’t be beat, and I think the Hogarth-meets-MTV approach actually works great for the story. Never could figure out why it got such terrible reviews. RC and JLM may have had some fun making it, at least, I’m guessing, though, doing a lot of improvising and such. I seem to remember an interview in which RC said that he wondered where his and JLM’s writing credits were for P&M. They’re both pretty funny guys.

  • Resa Haile

    Just a note to say that it hasn’t actually been a hundred years since Doyle stopped writing the Holmes story; the last one was published in the *Strand* magazine in 1927. Very interesting interview, though.

  • Resa Haile

    I meant “the Holmes stories,” although “the Holmes story” makes Watson’s tales sound like one long biography, which, in a sense, they were.

  • barbara barnett

    Point taken Resa. I’ll make that correction.

    Lucy–just posted my review of Carlyle’s new movie–and an interview with the director (he talks alot about RC’s improvising ;))

    The more I see of JLM, the more I like him. Plunkett & Macleane is just a great lot of fun!

  • Josh Porter

    Thanks Resa for the correction. I am working on my school project about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Your comment definitely saved me from a lot of embarrassment.

    You are the best!