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Holmes-field advantage for ‘Elementary’

While you Were Sleeping

While you Were Sleeping

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Updated: March 3, 2013 6:05AM

On Super Bowl Sunday, the game is afoot. And it’s being followed by Detective Sherlock Holmes.

CBS deduced that “Elementary,” a modern-day spin on Baker Street’s beloved sleuth, should get the network’s prized post-Super Bowl spot. The drama, which has been especially good lately as it sets up the iconic Holmes-Moriarty rivalry, has captured a lead-in most shows would kill for. Roughly 111 million viewers tuned in to last year’s Super Bowl — that’s a lot of eyeballs that might stick around to see what’s on next.

“It’s an incredible opportunity to expose the show to people who may not have checked it out yet,” “Elementary” creator Rob Doherty said.

The special Sunday episode pits Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) against a notorious murderer played by guest star Terry Kinney, a central Illinois native who co-founded Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company.

The network went back and forth about which of its freshman shows — “Elementary” or Dennis Quaid’s ’60s-set “Vegas” — would trail Sunday’s big game.

“We just felt [‘Elementary’] was a better fit for right after the Super Bowl in terms of appealing to all the viewers,” CBS entertainment President Nina Tassler said.

“Elementary” is the season’s most-watched new series, a crime-of-the-week show that’s right at home on a network with a penchant for police procedurals. It’s set in New York City, where Miller’s Sherlock helps the NYPD solve crimes along with Dr. Watson — that’s Dr. Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu (“Southland”).

First-run episodes average 14.8 million viewers, including those who watched live and on DVR playback within seven days. The show gets an additional 12 percent lift from video-on-demand and online streaming, meaning “Elementary’s” total audience across all platforms eclipses freshman-year ratings for CBS’ powerhouse hits such as “NCIS” and “CSI.”

“Elementary’s” success is a testament to our seemingly insatiable appetite for Sherlock Holmes. Robert Downey Jr. has portrayed Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary character in recent films, while Benedict Cumberbatch has become a nerdy girls’ heartthrob thanks to his manic turn as the consulting detective in the PBS-BBC series “Sherlock.”

While “Elementary” is very good, “Sherlock” is great. Both shows routinely stretch the bounds of credibility, but “Sherlock” gets away with it better than “Elementary.” My biggest problem with “Sherlock” is there’s not enough of it. The London-set show airs three episodes a season; “Elementary” is churning out 24 (the drama’s regular time slot is 9 to 10 p.m. Thursdays on WBBM-Channel 2).

Like his fellow British actor Cumberbatch, Miller delivers his wry dialogue at breakneck speed and exudes the air of a man whose greatest fear is boredom. He’s convincing as a recovering addict who’s both damaged and driven.

“One thing I love about this character is that he’s quite raw and his struggles are on the surface,” said Miller, whose Sherlock skews more playful — and more playboy — than most.

One woman Sherlock hasn’t bedded is Watson, although the show’s creator knows some viewers are rooting for the partners in crime-solving to hook up. I for one would hate to see the show go the “Moonlighting” route. I also don’t relish a drawn-out will-they-or-won’t-they dance, a la “Castle.”

“We love to defy expectations on this show,” said Doherty (“Medium”), adding that he’d prefer to keep the Holmes-Watson dynamic platonic. “When you look at the relationship in the original books, they didn’t need to get together … and they managed to tell many fascinating stories. I’d like to apply that thinking to this show for as long as I possibly can.”

Watson entered the picture at the behest of Sherlock’s father, who hired the doctor to be his son’s “sober companion.” A guilt-wracked surgeon who fled medicine after accidentally killing a patient, Watson serves as a live-in babysitter charged with keeping Sherlock on the straight and narrow.

Liu and Miller have developed decent rapport, but their balance of power seems a bit off kilter. Liu’s Watson brings less to the relationship than the “Sherlock” version of Watson, played by Martin Freeman.

Liu said she’s sure some Sherlock purists are “shocked and appalled” that “Elementary’s” Dr. Watson is a female. It probably also bothers them that Watson is Asian-American, she said.

“They’d love to say something about that but they’ll get attacked,” she said. “In some ways I’m lucky because it’s not PC to discuss it.”

The casting of Sherlock’s archenemy, Moriarty, remains a mystery. It won’t be for long. “Elementary” recently launched that story arc by identifying Moriarty as the man who murdered Sherlock’s one true love, Irene Adler.

“We cannot wait to get more serious about Moriarty,” Doherty said. “I foresee us getting a bit more serialized than we have been as we get into something of an end run for this first season.”

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