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Partners in crime

New series puts a twist on familiar Holmes-Watson pairing

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If its producers and cast members are to be believed, the new CBS series Elementary will be all about the "Whodunit?" and not concerned with the "Will they or won't they?"

This modern-day, Americanized spin on the oft-adapted Sherlock Holmes stories (which premières tonight at 9 on CBS and Global) is a departure from other screen versions of Arthur Conan Doyle's detective yarns in that it's set in New York City and Holmes's faithful crime-solving companion, Watson, carries the first name Joan.

British actor Jonny Lee Miller (Eli Stone, Trainspotting) portrays Holmes, who in this telling has suffered a fall from grace in London and, after completing a stretch in drug rehab, has relocated to Manhattan, where his wealthy father has forced him to share quarters with a "sober companion."

Lucy Liu (Ally McBeal, Charlie's Angels) is Dr. Joan Watson, who has taken the job as Holmes's minder because her career as a surgeon ended three years earlier after she was found negligent in the death of a patient.

This re-imagining of the Holmes/Watson pairing, then, will be an uneasy one at the outset. But it's unlikely, regardless of how friendly they become as they find their way forward together, that romance will be in the offing.

"The friendship is the core," Miller said when Elementary's cast and producers met the press during the CBS's portion of the U.S. networks' summer press tour in Los Angeles. "They become colleagues, partners. And there's also this other reason that they have to be together -- the sober companionship... That it is a man and a woman, that shouldn't matter.

"People are going to wonder, of course, but then, wondering and asking questions is something that you really want your audience to do, isn't it?"

Liu agreed that she's not interested in playing a Watson who's the object of Holmes's affection, and she added that she's also glad that this version of Watson -- unlike many other screen incarnations in the past -- is not going to be played for comic-relief purposes.

"I think, historically, it's been a bit skewed (toward humour)," she said. "Originally, if you ever have been able to read the actual literature, Watson is actually not really comedic. He's somebody who is incredibly observant, and all of the stories come out of what he sees and what he experiences.

"So, you know, the 'foot in the bucket' (gag) and that kind of Watson, I think, happens because, in entertainment ... there's got to be a sidekick. And in this case, I don't think that's the direction we are going. But ask me in six episodes. If I have my foot in a bucket, then we'll have a discussion."

When Elementary was included in CBS's 2012-13 schedule announcement last spring, some TV observers wondered if there's room in the pop-culture landscape for another Holmes/Watson tale. With Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law currently inhabiting the characters on the big screen and Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman offering a brilliant interpretation in the ongoing PBS-imported BBC series, there's more than enough Sherlock to go around.

But the CBS version quickly manages to find its own voice and establish a unique sense of time and space, so it will be interesting to see if North American TV viewers embrace the Miller/Liu version of Holmes.

Miller, for his part, confessed an over-the-moon affection for what Cumberbatch -- with whom he recently co-starred in a stage production of Frankenstein at London's Royal National Theatre -- has done in the BBC Sherlock mysteries.

"I love the work that Benedict has done with Sherlock," he said. "I would call him up like a groupie after every episode came out and want to talk to him about it. And we had a discussion about this project as well; it was a private discussion. Benedict has been very, very supportive, and, you know, I wanted to reassure him about how different this script was and project was. All of the other differences will kind of be apparent. That's another country and a whole lot of different, you know, vibe." Twitter: @BradOswald

Holmes in homes

LAST spring, the Guinness Book of World Records cited Sherlock Holmes as history's most-portrayed literary character in film and television, having been depicted onscreen 254 times by more than 75 actors, including Christopher Lee, Peter O'Toole, Christopher Plummer, Charlton Heston, Roger Moore, John Cleese and Peter Cook.

Without question, these are the 20th century's two most memorable Holmes/Watson screen pairings:

Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce -- the first high-profile screen tandem to tackle the roles, they appeared together in 14 films in the late 1930s and early '40s.

Jeremy Brett and David Burke/Edward Hardwick -- Brett's made-for-Brit-TV performances as Holmes during the '80s and '90s (which were imported for PBS's Mystery! series) have been considered by most to be the definitive screen adaptation of Conan Doyle's brilliant but tortured detective.

Local-TV bonus mention:

The Adventures of Shirley Holmes -- this YTV series, which starred Meredith Henderson as the case-cracking great-grand-niece of Sherlock Holmes, was filmed in Winnipeg and aired from 1996 to '99.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 27, 2012 E12

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