As most everyone in the Sherlockian world knows by now, CBS is considering doing an American version of the critically acclaimed and wildly successful SHERLOCK. Here’s a link to one of many notices about it.
So, at the risk of having everyone hate me, let me offer this devil’s advocate position: why don’t we give CBS a chance before we condemn what they do? Don’t throw Persian slippers at me yet! Please listen to my argument.
First of all, nothing CBS can conjure up will ever be better than SHERLOCK. We all know it cannot be topped as a modern re-imagining of the traditional Holmes canon. It deserves its accolades fully. (And if you’d like to know even more about it, please check out the amazing fan website Sherlockology and listen to our friends at the Baker Street Babes. I have to recommend them, even though we don't have Seasn Two in America yet, because these people do great work for this show and Sherlock Holmes in general.) The American version, whatever it is, won't top SHERLOCK for quality of writing or acting. We can accept this as an opening premise.
But what an American version could do is push the envelope for Sherlock Holmes in yet another direction. This would require courage and creativity (admittedly not qualities usually found in Hollywood) and a deeper understanding of Holmes’ role as a character beyond the confines of the Victorian era. That is exactly why SHERLOCK works---the team understands that if you get the character and the relationships correct, the rest is flexible. SHERLOCK is not a carbon copy of the canon. CBS now has a chance to prove, with imaginative flair, that Holmes’ spirit is an enduring one, perfect for crashing down traditional boundaries.
At the conclusion of my class on Sherlock Holmes, I ask my students to imagine themselves as Hollywood directors, about to make a Sherlock Holmes movie or TV show. They have complete freedom and a bottomless bank account (imagination is a wonderful thing). I ask them to tell me whom they would cast in the key roles. Every year, the students toss back wonderful answers---if only CBS would come and listen to them!
An African-American Holmes and Watson are the duo most frequently offered. Why not? Why not keep the characters and the relationship and simply change the skin color? Intelligence is a human factor, not a racial one; showing an African-American Holmes and Watson would be ground-breaking! The series could be set anywhere---in a big city, a small town, in a black community or in a larger, racially diverse one. Morgan Freeman is the most popular choice for Holmes in my student poll, and while I seriously doubt CBS could hire him, there are many wonderful actors of color. And why not be very bold, flip all expectations, and show a non-white Holmes and a white Watson? As long as the character is true, and the deductions sharp, does anything else matter?
Here’s another proposal---make Holmes and Watson female! I’d love to see talented actresses take on these roles. I think a heroine who is as cold and calm and calculating as Holmes would be a great balance to the ditzy women on TV these days. Turning the gender tables would require a lot of rethinking; it would be a greater risk than simply changing Holmes’ race and location. But think how amazing it could be.
Finally---in my imaginary memo to CBS---I’d say why be stuck in the modern world? You could set it in the past, even in the Victorian era if you’re that unimaginative (Holmes as a former Pinkerton agent?). What about a Holmes and Watson who can time travel, or a canon set in the future? (Yes, folks, I hear you, that would just be ripping off Doctor Who…) If all that’s too much, what about a globetrotting Holmes and Watson? Every episode could feature an exotic locale and be tied to a historical event in that country (Doyle knew a thing or two about blending the far-flung and the historic with the local and current, didn’t he?!).
My point is this: there aren’t many original ideas in entertainment. Most of our crime-solving shows are, to some degree, based on Holmes’ legacy anyway. If CBS simply tries to duplicate SHERLOCK, it is most likely going to fail. Critics will blame ‘oversaturation.’
But I beg to disagree; I think true fans of Holmes can’t get enough of him. And while everyone has
some take on Holmes that they despise, I think most of us are willing to at least check out a new interpretation. CBS’s best chance for success, in my humble opinion, is not to try to copy SHERLOCK, but to go for broke with a daring and radical new translation. Change Holmes’ race, sex, age---send him to the future or the past, send him around the world---just remember that it is his mind and his relationship to Watson that counts. I truly believe that an exciting, risk-taking Sherlock Holmes series would be good for our world.
Of course, we most likely won’t get that. We’ll probably get a stupid sit-com, or a version that is nothing more than a bland Xerox of the British original. And for that, I sincerely apologize for my country.
But right now I can’t be angry that there’s another version of Sherlock Holmes in the pipeline. I’ll keep an open mind and crossed fingers, hoping for the best.