No Fewer Than 5 Shows Inspired by Sherlock Holmes Find Homes on TV

A shadowy cabal of influential media barons went to war with a lone mastermind earlier this year in the court. This, of course, was the legal battle between Sherlockian Leslie S. Klinger and the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which tried to argue that, more than 100 years after the first Sherlock Holmes story was published, Holmes had not yet passed into the public domain because not every story starring him had been written yet by Doyle.

The estate's licensing strategy was a novel one: demand licensing fees. And if the demandee pointed out that the character was more than 100 years old and thus in the public domain, threaten to sue.

In his ruling, 7th Circuit judge Richard Posner said not just that the estate was in the wrong but that Klinger had performed "a public service" by fighting the Doyle estate's lawsuit and awarded Klinger some $30,000 in court fees.

But the television world has long made a habit of creating almost-Sherlock versions of Doyle's famous consulting detective; so many that the abrasive, crime-solving para-cop genius trope is all over the TV dial—and, a little surprisingly, it remains popular in several different contemporaneous versions. Sometimes showrunners perform genre reassignment surgery on the fabled detective and his various pals: make irascible, drug-addicted Holmes a doctor, change his name so it's a synonym for its homophone, and instead of Holmes and Watson you have House and Wilson. Other times, they simply go with a few of the better ideas that the series of stories had over its years and adapt them without mentioning them (see also Psych, in which a consulting detective and his friend the doctor, excuse me, pharmaceutical salesman, aid the police).

We are now in something of a Sherlockian Renaissance, with no fewer than five shows that borrow liberally from Doyle's classic stories slated to appear on TV by the spring. And that's not even counting the Robert Downey, Jr. movies. Here they are:

1

Sherlock

The BBC scooped up three primetime Emmy awards for this clever update of the classic Doyle stories. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss pay tribute not just to Doyle's characters but to his plotlines, his themes and even his titles—the three shows in this season were The Empty Hearse, The Sign of Three and His Last Vow, mirroring Doyle's Adventure of the Empty House, The Sign of Four, and His Last Bow. And hey, there's been a recent war in Afghanistan! The more things change, huh?

Listing all the Easter eggs for Holmes fans would take hours, but the show leavens its intense nerdiness with liberal amounts of tearjerking for the legions devoted to its stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, hitting a lot of the same notes as Danny Pudi's Abed on Community, and Martin Freeman. The series also updates plenty of older Holmes tropes, making Watson's admiring stories of Holmes a blog and visualizing Holmes' flashes of insight with a web-friendly word cloud. Sometimes this doesn't work—the episode that reworks The Hound of the Baskervilles is a good try, at best—but when, for example, Sherlock gives a best man toast at Watson's wedding, the series shines.

Here he is figuring stuff out.

2

Elementary

Lower profile in the geekosphere than the BBC's flashy take on the series but often praised for doing a better job of the actual police work, CBS's procedural Elementary relocates Holmes to New York and pairs him with Joan, not John Watson. Holmes is Jonny Lee Miller, Watson is Lucy Liu. The pair play up the same odd-couple dynamic with a certain amount of romantic tension (although visit the fan fiction community if you feel that element is lacking in the Cumberbatch/Freeman version), and the series tends to eschew Doyle's plots in favor of murder-of-the-week material that's friendlier to syndication.

The irreverence for the source material, though, gives the series some of its coolest moments: the handling of Holmes's love interest, Irene Adler, is one of the series' best ideas, to say nothing of the way it treats the (again gender-switched) archnemesis Moriarty. If there's one criticism that can be leveled against Sherlock pretty convincingly, it's that the show indulges in a certain amount of sexism. Elementary does quite a bit better on that score, and it's been leaning pretty hard on contemporary spycraft in recent episodes.

Look at him solve things.

3

Backstrom

Yes, all right, this is based on a Swedish book series and set in Portland, Oregon, but look at the lead character: Backstrom is an irascible, addicted (alcoholic) genius barely tolerated by the police for his ability to put himself into the shoes of criminals, humanized only by his closest confidant (Genevieve Angelson), who is a Muggle or something.

The series was passed over for a pickup by CBS and then picked up by Fox. Wilson is promising in the lead and Angelson looks like a good pick for his longsuffering sidekick. Maybe it's just that the grass is always greener, but this really does look like a good choice for a broadcast-friendly version of the character with a procedural hook that can take the character a long way.

And would you believe it, Backstrom reads crime scenes.

4

Forever

ABC has an English medical examiner with a wealth of experience who can recreate a crime scene in his head and helps out the police but is personally quite strange and is paired up with a baffled but patient partner. His name is Henry Morgan, (Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd), and his partner, Jo Martinez (Alana de la Garza) is on the police force, so that's an interesting switch up.

Possibly less interesting is the fantasy angle: Morgan is immortal and gets killed all the time to figure out exactly how the crime was committed. I mean, it's an interesting hook but will give rise to mythos-heavy, J.J. Abrams-style subplots about people who learn things about themselves and how to love life in the midst of death?

Hey, neat, he figures things out just by looking at them.

5

The Mentalist

Our last one is kind of layup: The Mentalist's Patrick Jane is a consulting detective who works with the California Bureau of Investigation when the Bureau can't solve a case, he reads crime scenes like board books, and is kind of a smartass. Jane has a fuller backstory than Holmes—he's a celebrity psychic whose family was murdered by a serial killer—but his M.O. is exactly the same, and oh, here he is accusing people he's just met of murder:

So basically if you can write a remotely plausible monologue in which someone throws around a bunch of really specific details about a first-degree murder, you can write your own ticket this year. Also, if you're a working actor who knows how to look amazed, opportunity abounds.