‘Sherlock’ vs. ‘Elementary’: The many sides of Holmes

Though Arthur Conan Doyle published the last Sherlock Holmes story in 1927, the legacy of Sherlock Holmes was far from over. The detective has been reincarnated more than almost any other literary character in the Western canon. As a culture, we can’t get enough of Sherlock Holmes. His name is a household byword for someone with keen observation and sharp deductive skills.
The most recent versions of the Holmes character come in two competing TV series: BBC’s “Sherlock”, which premiered in 2010, and “Elementary” on CBS, which opened last fall. When the “Sherlock” fandom heard about CBS’s Americanized retaliation to the BBC series, they released a deluge of disdain and criticism on Tumblr and other fan websites. “Elementary”, however, has earned decent reviews for its first season, garnering B+ ratings on the media criticism site Metacritic.com.
So which show is better? That’s up for viewers to decide. In the meantime, the Cluster offers a comparison of the two shows to help out fans looking to start watching one or both series.
“Elementary” re-contextualizes the Holmes character by bringing him to the future and to America, integrating the classic persona with the American style of crime drama.
Jonny Lee Miller’s performance as the detective himself is, in some ways, more true to Doyle’s character. Miller’s Holmes is charismatic without being warm and condescending without being unbearable. His character is also fairly steady. He does not go through considerable character growth, much like Doyle’s Holmes, who did not change much until Doyle brought Holmes back from the dead for the later stories.
Making Watson a woman was an interesting choice on the part of CBS. The show has managed to keep the sexual tension between Watson and Sherlock to a minimum, which is refreshing when compared to other male-female dynamic duos in modern television. Lucy Liu’s Watson has considerably more of a temper than her literary counterpart, and unlike the Watson of the books, she actually steps up with critical components of the cases to help save the day. She also gets a back story, and relationships with people outside of her friendship with Sherlock, whereas the original Watson had very few relationships outside of Baker Street and his (scarcely mentioned) marriage.
Watson is not the only character who is more fleshed out in the CBS Holmes reboot. The detectives of the NYPD get their own character arcs as well, and scenes exploring their relationships with people who are not at all relevant to the arcs of Holmes and Watson. While Miller’s Holmes still holds the department in contempt, the police of “Elementary” are considerably more capable than those of Doyle’s Scotland Yard, who were sometimes incompetent to the point of amusement.
The episodes of “Elementary”—of which there are currently 18, in 45-minute segments—feature original plots but draw from Sherlock canon for their deductive method. Despite its strengths in other areas, the way “Elementary” portrays the deductive process looks no different from the one depicted in other crime dramas. You could plug any names in for “Holmes” and “Watson” and it would be just as effective; the power of the original stories is lost.
Overall, though, I would say “Elementary” is worth watching, especially to tide the anxious viewer over until the long-awaited third season of “Sherlock” comes out.
And that brings us to the BBC show. One look at Tumblr will reveal just how much of a following Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have garnered with their wildly popular adaptation. People have literally cried over the postponement of the third season. This could be put down to the excellent writing and compelling characters. Then again, it could also be put down to the fact that half of the “Sherlock” fans have hopeless crushes on the titular actor, Benedict Cumberbatch. (And, to be honest, it is very hard to blame them.)
Gatiss and Moffat are diehard Doyle fans, a trait that shows strongly in their scripts. Whereas “Elementary” places the character in a modern setting, “Sherlock” transposes the entire Doyle universe—plots and all—to modern-day London. The plots of the six 90-minute episodes draw heavily from the most well-known original stories but update them with new technology and new social norms. Rather than his team of street children, Sherlock’s “Baker Street Irregulars” are the homeless network of London; Baskerville, rather than an aristocratic estate, is a military test facility; and Watson’s chronicle of the duo’s adventures is a blog rather than a diary. Sherlock’s antisocial and obsessive personality matches the interpersonal world of digital communication well, making the integration of technology and social media seamless and incredibly effective.
The reinvention of the original plots gives the classic stories a fresh, invigorating feel and leaves room to explore the canon’s unanswered questions, such as Sherlock’s dynamic with his brother and the practical implications of a brain as keen as Sherlock’s. (Watson’s hypothesis: Asperger’s syndrome.) The details add a touch of color that the straightforward nature of the original stories lacked. Audiences can tell that Gatiss and Moffat had fun with the writing process, making the show delightful to watch.
The series departs from the original series by exploring the overlooked emotional potential of the stories. The relationship between Watson and Sherlock gets a lot of attention as Watson learns to understand his eccentric, obsessive friend and Sherlock begins to care about other people for the first time in his life. Watson and Sherlock have clear and well-developed character arcs, making the series much more than just a crime drama.
Hands down, the aspect of “Sherlock” that best preserves the feel of the original stories (aside from a really incredible score) is its portrayal of the deductive process. Text appears on screen to track Sherlock’s thought process, and he delivers his deductions in rapid, intense monologues that help evoke the trademark wonder at Holmes’s brilliant mind.