'Elementary' team talks 'Sherlock,' a female Watson and Moriarty at Comic-Con
Jonny Lee Miller had a Holmes conversation with Benedict Cumberbatch
SAN DIEGO - With new TV series panels at Comic-Con, there's a familiar panel structure. A show is scheduled for an hour and that means a 44 minute screening of the pilot, six minutes of applause, actor introductions and more applause and then five minutes of questions, usually not getting any deeper than "What drew you to this show?" before the panel is rushed to an end.
It's pretty unsatisfying and I have to assume it often leaves the talent wondering why they wasted three hours on the train down from LA.
I mention the typically empty new show structure as a way of complimenting the panel for CBS' new drama "Elementary," which took place on Thursday (July 12) in Comic-Con's Ballroom 20.
Somehow, with only 65 allotted minutes, "Elementary" screened its pilot and got in a solid 15 minutes of Q&A, which included decently direct questions from moderator Dalton Ross of EW, as well as a good selection of audience queries. I came away from the "Elementary" panel feeling like an awful lot of important points were addressed and like the crowd was mostly satisfied with the results.
I've already done my Take Me To The Pilots entry on "Elementary," so you know that I thought the pilot played as a solid, better-than-it-needed-to-be CBS procedural. "Elementary" held up well in my second viewing, particularly the performance by Jonny Lee Miller, who's doing something pretty interesting and fun here, delivering a character who's recognizably Sherlock Holmes-ian, but isn't necessarily recognizably indebted to any one particular previous Sherlock Holmes.
Over my years at Comic-Con, I've seen a couple dozen pilots screened for audiences and it's easier to read crowd responses to something like a "Chuck," which invited laugher and applause and got both in spades when it played in San Diego. With "Elementary," there were a couple chuckles in the right places, but the audience was mostly silent, which I took as a terrific sign. Comic-Con audiences get easily restless and Ballroom 20 was as close to silent as the full room can get. This was an audience that I assume is aware of the BBC "Sherlock" and could have turned on "Elementary" at any point. It did not.
The moderator smartly brought up "Sherlock" in the very first question in the least confrontational way possible, noting to Miller that he and "Sherlock" star Benedict Cumberbatch spent much of last year swapping roles in a National Theatre production of "Frankenstein" and asking if they had discussed Holmes.
"It was obviously a conversation that we had," Miller agreed. "He's been very supportive."
He added, "We wanted to make sure it was going to be very different."
While Miller declined to discuss the private details of the Miller-Cumberbatch summit, he noted, "We were just discussing what a wonderful character this is. I just went back to the books, really. That's where I got most of my information. It's all from the novels and the short stories."
And, after all, it isn't like "Sherlock" and "Elementary" are the first two adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle's master sleuth. Asked if the number of previous iconic Holmes interpretations adds pressure, Miller actually went the opposite way.
"The fact that there have been so many interpretations over the years actually takes the pressure off," he said. "You can take what you want, what you feel hasn’t been seen before."
One thing that clearly hasn't been seen before is "Elementary" creator Rob Doherty's decision to turn Watson into a female, a female played by Lucy Liu.
"I always think it's wonderful when people do turn things on their heads. I think Bob was really thinking outside the box," Liu said.
She continued, "I think the gender change also creates a dynamic and a chemistry that you don't usually see in the films. Obviously in the BBC version there's a very strong link between the two, but there's a difference between when it's a man and a woman and a man and a man."
The "Charlie's Angels" veteran concluded, "I'm not saying it's romantic, but it gives it a different shift, a little bit of a tingle."
For some potential fans that "tingle" sets off reactions of a different kind, but Doherty was quick to jump in an put at least a theoretical kibosh on the idea that "Elementary" will be all about the Unresolved Sexual Tension between Holmes and Watson.
"I've always been a fan of the original books and the original Holmes and Watson," Doherty said.
He continued, "One of the things I'd come across was that Holmes struggled a bit with women. It was not really his proprity. He struggled with people in general."
Ergo, "It made me laugh: What would be more trying to Sherlock Holmes than living with a Watson who's also a woman."
But of the Will They/Won't They potential, Doherty said, "It was never designed for that. It's not the intention."
This prompted applause from the audience.
Liu got several bursts of applause for standing up for her casting when it was suggested there had been some criticism for casting an Asian-American female as Watson.
"This is the first time I've heard anything about criticism," she said with a laugh.
Liu noted, "For me, my entire career has been about criticism. If I didn't try new things, I would still be doing Calgon ads."
Doherty was coy about bringing favorite characters from Arthur Conan Doyle's world into the "Elementary" world.
While he said "What I've said in the past is that it would be a great shame to do a Sherlock project and not have Moriarty show up at some point in time," he also said that Mycroft Holmes would be a character who might not show up for a while.
Some people had been curious if "Elementary" will at least somewhat follow the "Sherlock" course of adapting Doyle tales for a modern world. Doherty hedged on that one as well.
"There are no hard and fast rules for us," he said. However, "What I was pitched from the very beginning... We love the original stories, we love the original books, at the same time, I think I'm speaking for the whole staff, what we love is the relationship and the mythology."
He added, "Primarily we're looking to craft new stories. We want to expose Sherlock to new things."
"Elementary" premieres on CBS on Thursday, September 27 at 10 p.m.