Innnnn this corner we have the BBC’s latest phenomenon Sherlock, an adaptation/homage to the world’s most famous fictional consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, transplanted into modern day London. Innnnn the other corner we have CBS’ Elementary, which is… the same thing, but in modern day New York. The two face each other off grinding their heels into the ground. Now taking bets! This is a no-holds-barred smackdown match event! This opening would have been a lot punchier if I had a better grasp of fighting sport lingo.
If you follow this website in which I blog into the void, you will know that I very much enjoy Sherlock (as well as admitting its critical flaws). Naturally, as one of many who went about this, I was quick to side-eye CBS’ announcement of their Elementary project. Yes, I’ll admit it, I was brutally sceptical. Which, in my defence, was warranted given how many organ-failure-inducingly awful American remakes or knock-offs have been made of British television shows. It simply wasn’t enough for the American market to enjoy Sherlock, they had to go and make their own. It grated upon me. But not so much anymore, I am joyful and actually pretty surprised to admit.
Is one better than the other? Does it all come down to another little rivalry between the UK and the US? Let’s step back and look at this objectively. Having recently finished season one of Elementary and waiting (c’mon, Win network) for Sherlock season three, here is my personal notes of critique, comparison and congratulations (It’s even relatively spoiler free!)
If this was a competition, I would have to say the cake goes to Sherlock, at least in the first two seasons. As well as being cleverly played out, all the crimes within, whether they were the episode focus or simply referenced, were drawn from the Sherlock Holmes canon, which makes the show an excellent homage to the original short stories. In general Sherlock is thrumming with sneaky references and aside nods to its source material and its fanbase, both the new and the old (Sherlock Holmes has been around for a long time, dudes).
Elementary relies on and refers less to the original stories, which makes it less of a Holmes homage with basically the characters being the only thing it has in common. In general, Elementary operates like a standard crime procedural. Though pretty forgettable, it’s not to say that the crimes within are badly written (for the most part they’re not even too gory, problematic or lacking in sense, which is always nice), they just follow a very strict crime fiction formula. While the mysteries are often engaging they can be predictable at times, in a “We have our killer!” “No you don’t, there are still fifteen minutes left in the episode!” kind of way. That being said, one doesn’t really watch crime shows for the crimes but for the detectives.
Really, I find it difficult to compare Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller since they both put on wonderful performances and I basically see them as one character in two different bodies. Of course, each version of Sherlock has his individual nuances, given to us both by the different actors and writing teams. Not to pick favourites, but I will certainly note that Miller’s, while still being a quintessential eccentric, pretentious unapologetic prick of a genius, is more likeable. He occasionally uses his deductive abilities for random acts of kindness and is much more accommodating and respectful to his Watson. Shock and horror, they get into arguments a lot, but they discuss and they resolve and he admits to his shortcomings, rather than them being celebrated or excused because geniuses can get away with being dicks to everyone, a card Sherlock has more of a tendency to play.
As well as being more of a decent person, Elementary’s Holmes is a much more vulnerable character (he certainly hasn’t bounced back from the dead yet), showing his broken side more regularly than Sherlock’s, who clearly has great complexity and room for character development but has stayed much the same over six movie-length episodes. It’s apparent from the start that Elementary’s Holmes is a man with weaknesses as well as a more apparent moral compass, since the entire reason Watson moves in with him is as part of addiction recovery, which is an element of the show and of his character that is delved into with a good amount of seriousness.
I cannot pick a favourite Holmes, for they are both the essence of the same character—but, Elementary gets to develop him more over the course of 24 episodes rather than six, gradually sculpting a much more evidently flawed, raw and multi-faceted man that can make you laugh, cry, and a couple of times stare in horror. They both, however, have fantastic taste in coats.
And where would he be without…
I’m going to say something my past self would be rather shocked with: praise be to Joan Watson. Watson’s gender-bending was the element of Elementary I was most wary and scornful about—not because I have anything against Lucy Liu, I’m just pretty sure Conan Doyle never described Watson as a beautiful Asian woman. Then again, he’s been a mouse, so why not this? Anyway, the thing I was most worried about was that they were going to take the chance to turn Watson into a love interest, and that reeked of potential terribleness from the instant the concept loomed. Oh how wrong I was.
Joan Watson is not a love interest; on the contrary, she seems to have a much more platonic and healthy friendship with her Holmes than Sherlock’s does. She also has a much more plausible and interesting reason for moving in with him though they have their initial conflicts: as mentioned above she is his sober companion who remains with him to stop him relapsing into drug use. Professionally and respectfully while retaining her air of compassion, Joan takes none of Sherlock’s crap. Or anyone’s, really, though she does show she isn’t made of iron. She’s capable though, and solves a lot of mysteries on her own as well as being integral to Holmes’ cases, and becomes a fully-fledged consulting detective of her own by the end of the first season.
Really, she’s rather wonderful, as a person and as a character, though her play-off with Holmes is more about figuring each other out respectfully and less about snark and playful conflict (though they have their fair share of banter), and certainly less about questions of “Are you a couple?” than the BBC’s incarnation (funnily enough). In any case, for a lot of reasons I find Joan a lot more likable than the BBC’s John, though that could be a question of how I related to her personally as well as how she’s characterised. Her relationship with Sherlock is infinitely more consistent, better-handled and less full of manipulative undertones than in Sherlock (from what I have seen of season three especially).
And getting that right is so important—Holmes and Watson are, after all, the world’s most famous detective duo. If they don’t go together well, what have you got? Crime. That’s what. And as discussed above that isn’t always that great.
Both series make good use of the villain, building up Holmes’ nemesis into an ominous and powerful manipulator and a skilled equal to our main detective. They’re both excellent counterparts to their respective Sherlocks and come with an atmosphere of quiet and magnificent deadliness. Each series takes a slightly different tact—Sherlock’s Moriarty is terrifying in that he swings from looking like an average guy to creeping around with a reptilian sort of menace threatening to skin people to gracefully sitting back and fulfilling the role of the devious mastermind, all without coming off as corny or stereotypical. He combines his manic behaviour with his cool, collected and very clearly sane and dangerous intellect, making him unpredictable and pretty alarming.
Elementary’s nemesis, whose image and identity remain undisclosed in this article for spoilery reasons, is equally as vicious and elegant in different ways. The build to Moriarty’s confrontation with Holmes is also much more drawn-out, the series simply being longer, which could be a good or bad thing depending on how you see it. The connection to Sherlock is a much more personal one, which entangles them in an extra layer of emotional manipulation in their great cat and mouse game where Moriarty ends up putting on multiple personas, remotely orchestrating countless clever murders and quite literally pitting countries against one another. The Napoleon of crime indeed. Both shows rank leagues above the Guy Ritchie movies, I have to say, where their shadowy, many-faced and wonderful villains are concerned. I can’t pick a favourite. They really are both as eerie, awe-inspiring manipulative assholes as each other. And both do it while impeccably (and symbolically) dressed.
Going by the BBC’s example, it seems like this character is the one easiest to mess up. Let us not discuss how one of the most progressive and quietly badass female characters in Victorian literature was robbed of her victory and her agency (after being set up as such a powerful figure), turned into simply a pawn and made into a mess by her lovey dovey feelings for Sherlock. And then she never showed up again. It was awkward. Why not have The Woman win, as she does in the original short story?
Elementary also makes Irene into a romantic partner of Sherlock, and at first seems to have stripped away even more of her strength. Minor spoilers here, but when we first hear of Irene she seems to be Our Hero’s tragically murdered love interest, the catalyst for his man-pain and development. But, given time and patience all that is turned on its head, turning our built-up expectations of the feisty but waifish Woman inside out. I shall leave the unknowing reader hanging there, but let’s just say I wasn’t sure if I wanted to bow and swear allegiance to Natalie Dormer or run full-pelt in the other direction. It was awesome.
Well, put it this way, Sherlock’s highest featuring of POC characters was the episode about Chinese gangsters based on a Yellow Peril era story and its most powerful female character was tricked and crushed by her melty-heart-feelings for Holmes, and half of Elementary’s leading duo is an Asian-American woman.
What can I say? In a sense this is like comparing apples to oranges, the same thing but very different and both capable of being enjoyed in different ways. To be obvious, with Elementary you get more—there’s simply more of it, plain and simple, which allows for more character development and a more gradual overarching storyline, and on a superficial level, isn’t hyped up and then over within three weeks. Elementary also has a bigger writing team, which could be good or could be bad, but it certainly feels less insular and self-indulgent than Sherlock can with its smaller Moffat-headed creative engine.
Sherlock offers more succinct writing in many ways, in terms of story structure with less predictable mysteries and a better sense of building suspense (and leaving its audience on cruel cliffhangers, which is not everyone’s cup of tea). But Elementary handles its characters better, with both Holmes and Watson wonderfully built and developed as individuals as well as having, as they say, a three-dimensional and awesome crime-fighting broship.
In the end, though, they’re both just modern AU fan fictions of Victorian literature. (Sudden thought—will there we shows like this based on our current crime fiction in a century’s time? Or 3D hologram plays or whatever?) Each caters to a slightly different audience but both are definitely enjoyable and worth watching.
On a far more superficial note, Johnny Lee Miller does not have the majestic voice of a dragon and Sherlock does not have a tortoise mascot. Think of that what you will.