It’s an old discussion, but I can’t resist to post my own take on it. I think this is an issue which went well out of hand from the very start, and I also think that the ongoing discussions about what is the better show are way too much colored by the way Elementary came to exist. So before I discuss the shows in itself, here my thoughts about Elementary being a rip-off.
I firmly believe that the writers of Sherlock were right when they made noise to protect their copyright. While Sherlock Holmes is not their property, their take on this character is, and they had reasons to worry about Elementary copying too many elements. But I also believe that there is always room for another adaptation, if said adaptation has found a new fresh take on the material. If Elementary manages such a fresh take is, at the end of the day, the crux of the matter.
The Sherlock fandom is a scary one. I don’t deny this. It’s not the fault of common fan, though. I have been in a lot of fandoms over the years, and as a general rule, the larger the fandom the more nutcases you have to deal with. That the Sherlock Fandom is so volatile just shows how large it is, and in reverse, how good Sherlock really is that it manages to ensnare so many of us. It’s a worldwide phenomenon.
The initially uproar about Elementary was, as far as I can tell, not about Sherlock fans thinking that there can be only one. It mostly happened because it was known that CBS originally wanted to make a remake of Sherlock, but the creators resisted the notion. And then suddenly CBS announces Elementary? Add to this that American Networks have a history of making bad remakes of European shows, you might understand where the fans were coming from a little bit better. Since Elementary turned out to be very different, this discussion mostly quieted down. Though this doesn’t change the fact that CBS simply jumped on the gravy train, and a lot of fans question of this new adaptation has something meaningful to add.
The problem with comparing these two shows is that they really are fundamentally different. So while I do have an opinion about which one I like the best, I’ll start out with pointing out how fundamentally different both shows are, how they relate to canon and how they fare as TV-Shows in general. I’ll also mostly concentrate on the two pilot episodes, because the pilot is kind of the calling card of a show.
1. The Format
This is really a no-brainer. Sherlock is a BBC production, the seasons are considerable shorter and every episode has essentially movie quality. The makers introduced some revolutionary aspects to the show. It seems strange to make such a big deal around text messages on screen, but they were the first who did it. Everything about Sherlock, from the way they blend over from scene to scene to the ways the look into Sherlock’s mind is created feels fresh and new. Elementary has to work with a smaller budget and has to produce more episodes in a much shorter time. This gives the writers more time to develop the characters, though Sherlock has the advantage of a tighter narrative.
Since Sherlock takes full advantage of his higher production value, there was from the get go no chance in hell that Elementary would be able to match that. And in a way, both shows have to compromise. Sherlock offers the audience top quality, but the fans have to deal with a really long hiatus between each short season in return. Elementary might not have the same quality, but it delivers regarding quantity.
Conclusion: The choice between Sherlock and Elementary is like the choice between a cup cacao made of Swiss chocolate and sweetened with honey and a can of instant cacao made with water. The cup will always taste better, but it might not be enough to quell your thirst.
2. The Setting
2.1 Twice contemporary
As the makers of Sherlock pointed out, a contemporary setting for the story is hardly a new idea. Nevertheless, the way they did it is a new approach. There is a simple reason why at one point the TV and movie productions stopped setting the stories in current time and instead reverted back to the costume drama approach: The leap between Victorian and Post-War England is way smaller than the leap to our modern time, with computers, mobiles and fundamentally different society standards. Earlier contemporary adaptations just took the figure of Sherlock as it was, giving the character always a slightly anachronistic feel. For Sherlock the writers sat down and asked themselves how Sherlock Holmes would be if he were born today. Victorian Sherlock was on top of the scientific research of his time, so the same is true for modern Sherlock. He used to prefer wire, now he prefers to text, he used to publish an article about the science of deduction, now he owns a blog with this title. For nearly every decision they made concerning BBC Sherlock, you can find a canon reference.
Elementary is a little bit at disadvantage here, because it has to avoid a lot of ideas the Sherlock makers came up with. But all in all they manage quite well, too, even though they are less referential about this, the technical gadgets are just there. But there are some aspects which make me wonder. For example I don’t really see the point of the tattoos. They are such an odd and random thing, which doesn’t seem to fit the character at all, no matter in which era he lives. Sherlock is supposed to be someone who can slip into a different role quite easily. Tattoos would limit this ability considerably. Plus, neither whores nor tattoos nor badly written romances are something which wasn’t around as the original Sherlock lived, so why should a contemporary Holmes be suddenly interested in any of this?
2.2 London vs. New York
There is a fundamental difference between the thought processes behind Sherlock and Elementary. Sherlock is set in contemporary London because the writers are avid fans of the books who wanted to play with the idea of a modern Sherlock Holmes. Elementary is set in New York because CBS is an American Network.
Thus said, I wouldn’t have minded the change of place (even though it brought back very bad memories of the atrocity which was “Sherlock Holmes in New York”), seeing CBS Sherlock interact on foreign soil, if Elementary would have bothered to explore the possibilities a little bit more. That their Sherlock Holmes is a British who works on American soil has no bearing to the plot at all, aside from some jokes along the line of “you foreigners don’t understand baseball”. I’m also wondering why CBS Sherlock is British, while Joan is American. Wouldn’t it made more sense if either both of them were American or both of them were British?
Elementary also fails to establish New York, while Sherlock manages to create a distinctive London vibe. Sure, CBS Sherlock taking the subway parallels BBC Sherlock using the typical London caps (it would have been a nice touch if he knew the whole subway system by heart), but a lot of the story is set indoors, and aside from a few landmarks you see in passing, there isn’t really much of a New York feel. What I really liked are the bees, because they are a Sherlock Holmes as well as a New York thing.
But overall, there is very little New York in Elementary, and in this case, the tighter budget is not an excuse. White Collar for example (and expect me to use this example a couple of times in this article) is an USA network show with a way lower budget and it nevertheless manages to establish New York as an additional character quite well (I would even got so far to say that they do it even better than Sherlock). They have to do deal with obnoxious product placement to achieve it on their tight budget, but even in the pilot they managed a distinct New York feeling by regularly featuring shots from the streets of New York. With White Collar, I couldn’t imagine the show anywhere else, Elementary could be set in any random American city, it wouldn’t make any difference.
And Sherlock – well, it’s set where Sherlock Holmes belongs, so it’s not like the show even needs to establish the place all that much. But just the one chase scene practically oozes London and A Study in Pink takes care to portray London as a city with two faces – one the tourists see and a one which is basically a battlefield.
Then there is 221B Baker street. Sherlock creates a nice mix of old and modern, the cozy but cluttered feeling I’ve come to expect. There are a lot of details put into the design, like a British flag pillow just lying around, the old fashioned tapestry, the laptop sitting on an antique looking table. Elementary’s brownstone house is a good pick from the outside, but the inside feel chaotic. I have no idea how much room there actually is in the house, it feels like a labyrinth. And the mass of TV’s (when exactly had CBS Sherlock the time to set them up either way?) don’t really look like they have any purpose.
Conclusion: The changes in Sherlock are deeply rooted in canon. Elementary goes for a freer interpretation, but the changes are mostly made because of Network demands and not with the plot in mind.
3. The Characters
3.1 Sherlock Holmes
What both shows have in common is that they present Sherlock Holmes as somewhat of a mystery, an approach straight from the source text, in which Watson spends a lot of time noting the strange habits of his new roommate, trying to figure him out, until Holmes takes him to a crime scene the first time. A Study in Pink takes full advantage of the longer running time and takes it slowly. We first see his text and hear people talking about him before he has his first real appearance on the screen, hitting a body in the morgue. Elementary does something similar, starting out with Joan getting a call about CBS Sherlock before she meets him. But I don’t think that it does good job establishing the character.
A Study in Pink has basically two mysteries, one is the mystery of the serial suicides, the other is the mystery of BBC Sherlock. And while we don’t get a final solution, we at least get a perfectly sound analysis of the character at the end of the episodes “You risk your life to proof that you’re clever.”
Elementary is missing this kind of answer in the end, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There is a whole season left to explore CBS Sherlock’s character, so why rush it? Sometimes keeping a mystery is the right way to go for a show. But what bothers me about CBS Sherlock is that a lot stuff he does makes no sense. What is the point of quoting the TV show as greeting for Joan? Does he just try to rattle her? At one point he says that he deliberately made a wrong deduction to spare her feelings, but why deduce her at all then? And if he finds sex so distasteful, why does he bother with it at all? Am I supposed to believe that it’s humanly not possible to life without sex?
There is a certain dichotomy in CBS Sherlock which sometimes works (I love that despite tendency to rudeness he automatically acts like a gentleman and helps Joan into a jacket, like a trained habit), but most of the time it is just confusing. Sherlock Holmes is actually a character which changed quite a lot over time (nobody can accuse ACD of being overly concerned with details), from the pleasant to life with gentleman to the guy who expected Watson to drop everything for him at short notice, and who was the bane of his landlady. That leaves a lot of room for a valid interpretation of the character, but Elementary doesn’t seem to be able to stick to one tone. I think I would like this more laid back and approachable version better, if there were some kind of pattern in CBS Sherlock’s behavior. Sherlock Holmes tended to be very restrained with his clients, but he also tended to use veiled sarcasm, and in private he was painfully honest towards Dr. Watson as soon as they became closer. CBS Sherlock just changes from rude to understanding from one moment to another.
BBC Sherlock has a certain dichotomy too, but it works much better in this case. This version genuinely doesn’t care about social norms, all that matters to him is to find something to engage his intelligence with. He can fake feelings and be polite when it suits his goal, but since he isn’t restrained by Victorian society, he mostly doesn’t bother. But despite him pretending not to care when people see him as a freak, there is this moment after he deduced John’s mobile, in which you can him see brace himself for the insult he expects to come. He might not care enough to change his behavior, but that doesn’t meant that a part of him doesn’t crave acceptance. And you can see how surprised and pleased he is that for once he gets appreciated for his talents that for once he doesn’t get ridiculed. This invites the audience to think about why BBC Sherlock is the way he is, to delve into the psyche of the great detective.
But the clincher between those two versions of Sherlock Holmes is the level of arrogance. I don’t mind arrogant people, real or fictional, if they have the skill to back their arrogance up. BBC Sherlock has those skills, the whole episode he is one step ahead of everyone. He is an independent character who had some troubles in the past, judging by the references to drug use, but who also caved himself his own little niche in the world. And when he points out that everyone else is an idiot in his eyes, you at least get where he is coming from.
CBS Sherlock on the other hand acts like a spoiled brat. He is just fresh out of rehab and complains about his father, the man who gives him a place to live in and pays for a companion to make the transition easier for him. When he acts out, he does it to provoke some sort of reaction. And when he shows a lack of respect, he simply doesn’t have the skills to back it up. This is partly because of the plotting of the show (more about it later), but all in all, Elementary seems to be set on going against the trend of portraying Sherlock Holmes as someone above normal people by emphasizing his mental instability, and treating his abilities as something everyone can learn with the right training.
It also seems to go out of its way to make CBS Sherlock somewhat “nice”. I have to admit: I’m kind of tired of all the rude geniuses who currently float out screens. Nevertheless I expect Sherlock Holmes to be one of them at least to some degree. I expect him to be someone who doesn’t care about his clients as soon as the case is concluded, and I expect him to be sure of his own abilities. A character who doesn’t believe in modesty has to be a show-off. When CBS Sherlock says “I sometimes hate it when I’m right” this doesn’t feel right, because not only contradicts this everything we learned about CBS Sherlock up to this point (and the writing on his T-Shirt), this is simply not what the character of Sherlock Holmes is about. Not that Sherlock Holmes always was right. He did draw the wrong conclusions from time to time, mostly because he tended to think the worst of people instead of the best. But he was a character which strived in being right – and quite aware of the fact. At one point he asks Watson to remind him of his wrong conclusion should be become too sure of himself again. Sherlock Holmes just doesn’t hate when he is right, he loves it so much that he can barely imagine being wrong.
3.2 Dr. Watson
Watson has to be one of the most mistreated characters in the history of the media. For nearly hundred years Sherlock Holmes faithful companion was reduced to a bland sidekick, often used as comic relief. At best he was some sort of foil for the audience to see Sherlock through his eyes, at worst he was a pointless, annoying character. In most adaptations the focus is so much on Sherlock that Watson is forgotten. It’s understandable, considering that his role in the source text is the one of a narrator, but nevertheless a little bit disappointing.
This in mind, I give Sherlock a lot of credit for finally giving John Watson a believable motivation for sticking around with BBC Sherlock. “You are not haunted by the war, you miss it” is not just a perfect explanation, it also cleverly avoids the PTSD cliché, which so many TV Shows attach to war heroes. And why does BBC Sherlock need John? Well, originally he doesn’t, he only invites him to the crime scene “to make a point”. But as soon as he discovers John honest appreciation for his ability, he keeps pulling him back to his side. Again, the audience gets a simple explanation for this behavior: Genius needs an audience.
The main point of Joan seems to be the fact that she happens to be female. Honestly, I didn’t get the fuss – on both sides. I don’t get why CBS and various reviewers made such a big deal about having the first female Watson, because, well, they don’t. There have been female Watsons in the past (none of them leaving an impact, though), and if you look more general, the genius with the female sidekick/care-taker/boss who takes the fall for him had become a cliché in recent years. And, if you ask me, a quite annoying one on top of it.
I don’t get why so many fans see a female Watson as a no-go either, but I do get feeling apprehensive about CBS doing it. I wasn’t sold on the idea of a female Watson from the get go (and for the record, I couldn’t care less who the actress is or about her heritage), because it seemed to me more a gimmick than a decision made with a specific goal in mind. The question is, if the gender really makes a difference for the story, wouldn’t it change the character too much to be still a veritable Watson, and if it doesn’t make a difference, why changing it at all? And while I’m all for gender equality, I’m not sure that meeting some sort of female quota in a show is the right way to go.
If there is one thing which sometimes bothers me about Sherlock, than the way female characters are portrayed. Partly the fault lies with the source text, the original stories are very much male dominated after all, and since Sherlock has less time to develop the side characters, the females get the short stick most of the time. Elementary should be ahead of Sherlock in this regard.
Except – it isn’t. Even if you hand-wave the string of woman which have been abused, murdered, held as slaves in this show as something which just happens in a crime show, their version of Joan Watson is frankly insulting. There is not much known about John Watson, but there are three basic facts, which shouldn’t be changed for a serious adaptation: He is a doctor, he is a soldier, he writes about Sherlock. Elementary barely manages one out of three. Well, it’s possible that the writer part might come into play later on, but there was no reason to remove the military past from the character aside from believing that a military career wouldn’t fit a female (despite the fact that there are a lot of woman in the military).
And this is an important point in canon. Sherlock Holmes can look out for himself, but he often takes Dr. Watson with him as back-up. There is even one instance in which he tells a suspect that he is lucky that he didn’t attack, because Dr. Watson would have shoot him immediately.
John Watson, the original and the BBC one, was forced out of his career after he was wounded in action. He is basically a war hero (how heroic is anybody’s guess, considering that Watson rarely writes about himself, but he does mention having lead an adventurous life). He meets Sherlock Holmes at a point in his life in which he has to redefine himself, a time during which he is low on funds and has to figure out his next steps. Joan Watson is a trauma surgeon who gave up her job because she made a mistake and her patient died. Right – how exactly is that still the same character, gender issues aside? It makes a big difference if you give up your career because you made a mistake or if your whole purpose in life gets ripped from you in one single moment. What is left of John Watson if you change his complete back-story, including the reason why he meets Sherlock Holmes? There was always more leeway with Watson than with Holmes, but CBS managed to step outside of the very wide possibilities of veritable interpretations of this character nevertheless.
I don’t even like the character on its own, independent from what she/he should be. You could argue that Joan is at least also in the process of redefining herself, but if that’s the case, she has been in this state for a long time, unable to move ahead on her own, despite being in a job and situation she hates. It’s not PTSD, but it goes in the same direction, but above all, it results in a very 1990s portrayal of female characters. Because female (emphasis on female) characters can’t just be good in what they do and simply hit with bad luck. No, they naturally have a vulnerable side, something which happened in the past in which haunts them in a way at they build up all kinds of shields to protect their tender hearts. And naturally they can’t pull through emotional problems on their own, they need a man to inspire them.
And frankly: It bothers me that Joan turns around when she sees a body. Yes, she says it’s different the next episode, but she has been a trauma surgeon! She has seen victims of vicious attacks before. I can see her being bothered about it the same way BBC John is bothered about it (he sights and briefly clothes his eyes), but her turning around and acting as if she has never seen that level of brutality before just doesn’t make any sense. And I think the only reason she does it, is because she is female. And she bonds with a female witness because, you know, she is female and we all know that woman tell each other everything, because we are all part of the same sisterhood. I for my part would have thrown out both of them, no matter if Joan defended me or not. By changing the gender, the writers are so focused on the fact that they have a female Watson that they seem to be stuck on the word “female” (and writing a gender instead of first and foremost a character is a mistake in itself, no matter who the character is supposed to be), meanwhile forgetting that this is still supposed to be “Watson”.
This might explain why Elementary seems to be so set to portray Joan as intellectually equal to Sherlock. She might not have the ability to do what he does, but it’s strongly implied that she could learn from him and at least keep up with his process of thinking. She even is allowed to make a break through when he isn’t able to do so. But that’s not what the partnership between Holmes and Watson is about. The whole point is that Watson can’t keep up with Holmes, despite being a very intelligent man himself, because Holmes abilities are at least one level over what everyone else can do. That’s what makes him a genius, and Watson is the stand-in for the audience in this equitation. If you want a female character who can outsmart Sherlock Holmes, you shouldn’t create a female Watson, you should create a female Mycroft.
Sherlock strives for an equal partnership – both, John and BBC Sherlock get something out of moving in together – but emphasizes that John can’t keep up with BBC Sherlock intellectually, without making him stupid. Instead of making him overly smart (which would remove him from the audience) he becomes BBC Sherlock’s emotional and social compass (in a way speaking up on behalf of the audience).
Elementary on the other hand is set on establishing equality on the professional level, but overlooks the private one. If Joan is at disadvantage because she is basically just a hire, or if she has control over CBS Sherlock, because it’s her job to control him, that is a matter of perspective, but in any case the result is an unequal relationship, in which none of the participants can simply walk away. Joan not because it’s her job, and CBS Sherlock not because his father will throw him out of the house. Even if there is a scene in which CBS Sherlock offers Joan a way out, this is not really an option, because it would mean for her to ignore her responsibility.
What bothers me about Elementary the most is that the pilot doesn’t take enough time to establish Joan Watson as a character. We see her running, she gets this phone call, and then spend the rest of the episode getting conflicting information about her. Now, I don’t say that you have to know everything about a character in the first episode, but you need one character well enough established that you can identify with him. It’s one thing to have Sherlock Holmes presented as a riddle, it’s another thing to have a riddle at both sides. Watson was always the eyes for the audience, but Joan is more another character to explore.
Sherlock on the other hand takes its time to introduce John, though honestly, the first few minutes of Study in Pink already tell us more than enough about him. Just seeing him waking up from his nightmare, his depressing living conditions, the gun in his drawer, and his broken “nothing happens to me” is enough to get a feeling for his character.
And again: That’s not a matter of time or budget. White Collar (told you that we would get back to it) manages to establish the basics with two still shots and some words written on the screen (Neal Caffrey: Convicted: Bond Forgery Suspected: Securities Fraud, Art Theft, Racketeering) and the information that Peter Burke (F.B.I. White Collar Crime Unit, NYC) was the only one who ever caught him. “You know that I don’t like guns” and “This is the same suit you wore the last time you arrested me” are simple facts, but they go a long way to establish the kind of men those characters are further.
With Joan, I’m wondering about everything. In fact, I have an easier time to understand CBS Sherlock, who apparently slipped at some point, now tries to gets his live back on track and despises the idea that he might need help, than Joan, who does a job she hates after losing a patient. I really don’t get her. I don’t get her at all.
3.3 The supporting cast
Both shows more or less present the same set of characters. Sherlock has Lestrade, Anderson, Donavan and Mycroft as meddling brother, Elementary has Gregson, Marcus Bell and an invisible but also meddling father (who is not canon-based at all). No Mrs. Hudson though (at least not is the pilot), and no Molly. Ironically, Sherlock presents overall more female recurring characters than Elementary. And it makes me wonder. Why adding a female Watson, but no female police officers?
Despite my complaints about Sherlock’s boys club, I actually think that the show mostly does a good job with characters like Molly and Mrs. Hudson, especially during the second season. I always prefer a female character who looks like a push-over and suddenly displays hidden strength over the common action girl. It’s the kind of character I somewhat miss in Elementary. And my thoughts about their version of Mrs. Hudson – I honestly wonder why the character is even called this way. I mean, why can’t a transvestite be a landlady or proper housekeeper?
The portrayal of Toby Gregson works way better, even though the character is mostly reduced to “the guy who provides the cases”. It is notable though that CBS Sherlock seems to respect him, but even more important, while there is some hostility, the police does respect CBS Sherlock. In the original books, ACD Sherlock is widely respected, too, so in this regard Elementary is closer to canon.
The relationship between Lestrade and BBC Sherlock is a little bit different from canon, but it is also way better established. And more important. The characters we meet in A Study in Pink are the ones who know BBC Sherlock the best. John’s quest for understanding BBC Sherlock doesn’t start and end with him, we see him talking to a lot of people who all provide a different perspective. Donovan warns John away, Lestrade says that Sherlock is a great man and he hopes that he will one day be a good one too, Mycroft impresses on him that just being around Sherlock is like living in a war zone and people like Mrs. Hudson or Angelo sing his praise.
Elementary on the other hand is very much focused on CBS Sherlock and Joan. Especially in the pilot they spent a lot of time talking to each other and the suspects of the case, but everyone else seems to be outside the bubble they build for themselves. The biggest influence on their relationship is a character who doesn’t even appear on screen (the father). Making CBS Sherlock yet another TV-Lead with Daddy-Issues. Because after Gregory House, Shawn Spencer, Patrick Jane, Nathan Ford, Michael West, Neal Caffrey, Rick Castle, and at least a dozen others, we totally need yet another character who has a complicated relationship with his father. Not!
BBC Sherlock and John are rarely alone. There are moments in which the show does concentrate on the two characters, but most of the time, the situation gets immediately broken up by the case or Mrs. Hudson. And while their partnership is the heart of the show, the relationships between them and Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock and Molly, Sherlock and Mycroft, Sherlock and Lestrade, John and Mycroft, are equally important.
3.4 The Villains
3.4.1 The Criminal of the Week
I can’t emphasis enough how cleverly A Study in Pink plays with the concept of a villain in Sherlock’s life. It’s rare that a TV show can fool me at all (or is written well enough that I can’t predict the plot at least partly), but I admit: They got me. I totally fell for the Moriarty fake-out. But even knowing the truth now, this is one of the strongest scenes in A Study in Pink. And naturally is the promise of Moriarty lurking in the back at the very end exactly the kind of incentive which draws the audience in.
But Moriarty aside, Jeff Hope is also a very memorable villain in his own right. And he is mostly memorable because he poses a true danger to BBC Sherlock, because he is able to use his weaknesses against him. We never learn if BBC Sherlock picked the right pill, but that he even allowed himself to get snared into Hope’s game shows how much he needs John to have his back.
The villain in the Elementary Pilot is a pretty weak one, mostly because his motivation is pretty hazy. For starters, why does he want to kill his wife in the first place? She is apparently so much in love with him that she would change her whole appearance for him, there is no talk about a divorce being problematic or another woman, so why does he do it? Just for kicks? Just imagine how long it must have taken to change her in the way that she fits the profile of the serial killer (though, how exactly does he qualify as a serial killer when there is only one prior victim who is still alive I don’t really get), on the off-chance that he would really snap at the right moment.
Another thing which makes the husband a really forgettable killer is that the stakes are not particularly high. Really, what will happen when CBS Sherlock doesn’t catch him? He will go free and gloat. That’s it. And I don’t mean that there has to be a physical danger. In White Collar (yeah, I know, this should be the last time I used this example) the Dutchman is not only portrayed as clever, maybe as good as Neal, Neal is also forced to risk everything to catch him because otherwise he will go back to prison. And the same way Sherlock concludes with promising an upcoming mystery by mentioning Moriarty, White Collar hints of that Neal will go off the rail in the future to search for Kate. Elementary ends with baseball. Not exactly a good hook.
So far, I did my very best to keep my analysis to the first episodes of both shows. But for a complete analysis, we have to talk about the most important canon characters. We have to skip Milverton, though, because he didn’t turn up in Sherlock so far. At this point, Sherlock has finished the second season and I have watched enough of Elementary to get the gist what the first season was about. Fair warning: If you don’t want to get spoilered for either show, you should move forward to the conclusion.
When Sherlock ended its first season, there were a lot of complains about their version of Moriarty. Not from me, though. I liked their erratic version from the get go, perhaps because it reminded me of another (kind of) adaption I really like, Rattigan from Disney’s “The Great Mouse Detective”. Plus, to me it make sense that if BBC Sherlock is more outgoing, BBC Moriarty should be to. Thankfully, I didn’t really have to argue the point, because the second season won most of the fans over. One thing for sure, Moriarty will be missed in the third season. That doesn’t mean that I want him back. He is a character who has run its course and I look forward to the next villain.
When it comes to Elementary: I love the idea of a female Moriarty. In this case, the gender change has so much potential. Part of what made Moriarty so successful in canon is that he was able to pretend to be just a harmless citizen. A female version would be able to play this role even more convincingly, she even could pretend to be the poor damsel in distress stalked by the obsessed Sherlock Holmes.
They could have introduced Moriarty much earlier, made her an established character before revealing the truth in a truly unexpected twist. Sadly that’s not the route CBS picked. Instead they first needed ages to mention Moriarty at all, and when she finally turned up on screen, I immediately pegged her as a baddy. And as I much as I love the idea of a female Moriarty, I hate her being in a romantic relationship with Sherlock and I hate that she is called Irene Adler.
3.4.3 Irene Adler
When it comes to Irene Adler – I think that adaptations who make her a criminal or Sherlock’s love interest (or both) are missing the point of the character. Irene Adler is important because she was the woman who taught Sherlock Holmes not to dismiss females. She is feminist, because despite being descripted as the kind of woman who gets the attention of men, she is not a femme fatale, but a woman of integrity, whose word is taken serious. A woman who doesn’t pin after the king who betrayed her love, but instead goes on with her live and finally marries a “better man” she really loves.
I nevertheless like a lot about Sherlock’s take on the character. I like the idea that BBC Sherlock can’t read BBC Irene. I actually think that the first half of the episode is outstanding. It’s the second half which doesn’t work. First BBC Sherlock wrongly identifying the body (something which never get explained), then the reveal that he whole plan was actually Moriarty’s and don’t get me started on Irene Adler begging and kneeling in the end. I would have bought this version of Irene hook, line and sinker though, if the episode had ended this way: Irene reveals that she partnered up with Moriarty (it would have been even better if he weren’t involved at all, but I guess someone had to call him away from the pool), doesn’t beg for protection but leaves the head high. And the episode ends with Sherlock holding her phone, suggesting that he might have helped her (or that she might have survived on her own), but leaving her fate open for interpretation.
While Sherlock plays with the idea of a romantic connection between BBC Irene and BBC Sherlock, there is no doubt in Elementary that CBS Sherlock is in love with Ireniarty. This has the advantage that the main villain can be around for a long time without the audience asking itself why CBS Sherlock is still alive, but it does do neither character any favors. Sherlock Holmes is simply not interested in woman, to the constant disappointment of Dr. Watson, and even his relationship to Irene Adler might as well simply one of admiration and not of love. CBS Sherlock pining over a woman and drowning in guilt over her death – that has nothing to do with Canon.
Conclusion: Sherlock’s characters are very close to what canon has to offer, with a few twists thrown in. Elementary changes the whole backstory of the characters, often to a degree that the only thing they have in common with canon is the name.
4. The Plot
4.1 The Approach
Naturally Sherlock has the advantage there, because this show is based on the original stories. It’s clever enough not to repeat what the avid Holmes fan already knows, instead it creates out of known elements a new plot, which is nevertheless familiar enough to feel immediately at home. The parallels reach from the obvious, like BBC Sherlock immediately being able to tell that John was an army doctor, to the more obscure. After all, who remembers that John Watson once mentioned in a side note the unsolved case of James Fillmore who went back to fetch an umbrella and was never seen? And makes the connection when A Study in Pink features a teen by this name who is found dead after going back for an umbrella? Those are the details which make the show really fun. You don’t need to know the books by heart (or at all) to get the plot, but you are naturally compelled to read the books again and hunt for the hidden hints.
Elementary wouldn’t be able to copy the concept, or the show would be over after one season. They have to use original stories and use the well-known references sparingly. But does this work as a real detective story, in which the audience is invited to deduce, too? No…not really. When CBS Sherlock asks if nobody noticed that something is missing in a room, because the otherwise symmetric arrangement has an empty spot, my only thought is “No, naturally not, because the camera angle didn’t allow me to see the symmetry until now.” At the same time, a lot of the conclusion CBS Sherlock makes are painfully obvious. One of the challenges a modern adaptation has to face is that the ACD Sherlock used forensics while the police didn’t, so a lot of his stunning deductions are based on paying attention to details which would have been missed back then. Nowadays the police knows what to look for. They don’t really need CBS Holmes to point out that there are enough shards for two glasses, or to learn that the victim changed her appearance radically in the last years. The only way this character can look smart is by dumbing down all the other characters (with the exception of Joan), letting them stand around in awe and not doing their job. It’s hardly the first adaptation who does this, especially dumbing down Watson has a long tradition, but I think that a good Holmes should be first and foremost be cleverer than the audience.
To be fair, that the murder in A Study in Pink was a taxi driver was also very clear early on. But in this case, it is understandable that the characters in the show don’t catch on earlier, since the audience knows a little bit more. We know that all of them needed a taxi, but we don’t know if the police and BBC Sherlock know that. After all, the first deaths were treated as suicides, and who would expect a teenager springing the money for an expensive taxi? (Though in the unaired pilot BBC Sherlock actually did know early on, it was mostly the need to double the length of the episode which created this “slip” on his part).
But the main reason why BBC Sherlock is so impressive is because of a mixture of unexplained off-the-wall deductions and very clever on screen deductions. Often we see exactly what BBC Sherlock sees and then get his way to the deduction right on screen. Wet under the collar but the umbrella is dry – she was at a place with rain and strong wind. Totally logical, but I would have never made the connection on my own. And if under all this logical deductions we get something along the line of “I can identify an airline pilot by his left thumb” we are inclined to believe it, even if it is a little bit off the wall. Since the unexplained deductions are never part of the main case, it’s not really important if they work or not (at least you don’t feel betrayed by an impossible solution), but they emphasis the impression that BBC Sherlock really can see what no one else (aside from Mycroft) can.
The concept of Sherlock is also way closer to the original than any other adaptation done beforehand, because it does something unique to all of them: It does it very best to pretend that BBC Sherlock is real, the same way the original stories were written as if they were about a real person. One of the reasons the original death of Sherlock Holmes caused so emotional reactions is because it felt for many readers as if a real person just died. Back then, people were wearing black badges to honor him and one fan even attacked ACD for killing him. Nowadays fans plaster “I believe in Sherlock” all over the internet. Naturally we all know on some level that we are dealing with a fictional character, but we love to entertain the possibility, and the BBC does it very best to help the illusion along. You can visit “The Science of Deduction” as well as John’s Blog in the net, you can even find a fansite for Connie Prince and Molly’s online diary. And this is the real magic of Sherlock, not that it’s set in modern time, but that it’s set in our time, in our reality.
4.2 The Cases
Elementary tries to draw in the audience by providing really unusual murder plots. The case in the pilot episode is pretty much typical for the show, with its unnecessarily complicated murder scheme and the badly explained motivation for it. I think part of the reason why it’s written this way is to make it harder for the audience to guess the culprit. But since Elementary is trapped in a very generic crime-show structure, it’s like the plot in itself points to the right culprit either way. One reason I rarely read crime novels is because I usually can tell after the first chapter who the murder is (provided that he was mentioned at this point), even if the crime hasn’t been committed yet. It’s hard to explain, but often if a writer tries too hard to distract from the actual culprit, he just draws even more attention to him (or her). And that’s also the problem of Elementary. It’s predictable
The cases in Sherlock tend to be unusual and complicated too, but the motivations are usually sound and since Moriarty is often the actual mastermind behind them, it makes more sense that they are deliberately out of the norm to challenge Sherlock. And I really don’t want to know how many people got away with murder with Moriarty’s help before he decided to give Sherlock a glimpse of his enterprise. I don’t think that it’s an accident that the two episodes which are usually considered the “weakest” of the show (relatively speaking) are the ones in which Moriarty takes a back-seat. It’s just harder to believe that Chinese gangster would act the way they do in The Blind Baker, or that someone would test mind-altering smoke on random people in the woods, even though it is a better explanation for a monstrous hound than illuminating paint.
The Hound of Baskerville is a little bit unusual for Sherlock overall, because it’s the only episodes which presents a set of suspects. Normally the question is not “who did it” but “How and why was it done” (not to confuse with the Columbo structure in which the question is “how will the detective proof it”). And honestly, the question how someone could die standing alone in a meadow, or how a serial killer convinces his victims to voluntary take poison, or why a guard figured out that a painting is a fake is way more interesting than the question if the husband or the sister was the culprit.
The nature of the cases make the involvement of BBC Sherlock more logical, too. Since the case is unusual from the get-go, it makes sense that the police would involve the specialist for unusual cases. And if it doesn’t look unusual – well, Dimmock is really not happy about BBC Sherlock butting in what looks to him like a normal suicide, and the only reason BBC Sherlock gets called to a kidnapping is because the ambassador asked for the famous detective. With Elementary, I often wonder why the police calls CBS Sherlock for what initially looks like a pretty straightforward case, which only gets complicated later on. Are they psychic?
4.3 The Story-arc
The most notable thing about Elementary is that it spends a lot of time dwelling on the past of Joan and CBS Sherlock. The whole arc seems to be focused on them facing and overcoming their demons – in CBS Sherlock’s case quite literally. A lot of time is spend with the characters analyzing each other or digging into each other’s past. The first half of the season in mostly about Joan settling into her new life, the second half focusses more on CBS Sherlock’s relationship with Irene.
Sherlock on the other hand is more about moving forward. Naturally both characters have a past which influences the present, but the focus is more on how their partnership changes them. John’s story is not about confronting his war memories but about building up a new life for himself. And BBC Sherlock’s is not about him battling his drug addiction (though he does have “danger nights”), but about his journey to become not just a great but also a good man. Sometimes the development is not exactly spelled out. For example in the first season he tends to delete what he considers unimportant, something which nearly leads to him “loosing” against Moriarty, because he didn’t think that the solar system is important. In the second season, he suddenly has a mind palace, in which he stores all kind of information. While it is never outright stated, it is entirely possible that he decided on a new approach after realizing that he can’t predict what might matter in the future and what not.
Sherlock is full of references and ironic call-backs. For example in the first episode Sally warns John that at one point they will stand around a body and BBC Sherlock will be the one who put it there. At the end of the episode they stand around a body and John is the one who put it there. In the third episode of the first season, BBC Sherlock is upset because he doesn’t like what John wrote about the first case (quoting canon, btw). And in the first episode of the second season Mycroft remarks that people who spy on other people for money are not trustworthy, revealing indirectly that offering John money for information was more a character test than a serious proposal.
Elementary has those call-backs, too, but tends to spell them out for the audience. Sherlock is much more subtle, and every time you watch, you might notice a new detail. For example there is a Cluedo board stuck to the wall with the knife in “Scandal in Belgravia”, which is pretty hilarious in hindsight when John says that he will never play this game again one episode later. I wonder what happened there.
Conclusion: “Nothing is ever new” is a good description for Elementary. An even better one is “just another CBS Crime Show”. It’s a really successful format CBS has used multiple times in the last years (and kind of what their regular viewer expects) but if you are familiar with those shows, it seems like you have seen Elementary beforehand, multiple times. Sherlock on the other hand is a show which challenges the intelligence of the audience, invites it to pay attention to the detail and above all, to read source text again.
5. The Casting
To be frank: I usually don’t pay much attention to actors, especially not TV-Actors, unless they stand out to me in some way. And even if I really dislike an actor in a certain role, I rarely hold it against him or her, unless said actor ruins every role without fail. This happens rarely, though. Most actors out there have the ability to work in a certain kind of role, and as soon as the producers recognize this, they are usually cast in this role again and again either way. There are a few which have a really impressive range and can sell whatever they are given – in most (not all) cases those are the actors who are really successful despite not being particularly good-looking, and who nevertheless regularly steal the Hollywood beauties the show because of pure charisma.
I was pretty much without opinion about any of the main cast members of both shows. Well, I naturally had heard the name Lucy Liu beforehand, but I can’t actively remember seeing her on screen (no, I didn’t watch Charlie’s Angels). And while I adored Martin Freeman in “Love actually” and hoped that this actor would go on to a lot of other roles, I didn’t take the time to learn his name or follow the career. And since I have a really bad memory for faces, it did take some time for me to connect him to the actor which impressed me back then.
I’m also not a Dr. Who fan, so I was neither predisposed to like nor to dislike Sherlock because of the people behind it. Honestly, I originally just stumbled over the show because I was bored and the title sounded interesting enough to take a peek. Benedict Cumberbatch needed some solid acting talent to win me over, because he looked so different from my imaginative Sherlock Holmes. But he delivered, it didn’t take long until I bought him as young version of Sherlock Holmes. For the record though: Unlike a lot of fans, I don’t think that he is particularly attractive. Charismatic, yes, but I honestly don’t get the fuss about his looks. He isn’t even my favorite actor of the show.
This honor belongs to Freeman. He had me from the very first scene. Just the half-sigh, half-whimper he does when he awakes from his nightmare made me immediately feel for his character. What impresses me about this actor is that he is really, really good in playing the normal guy from the street. I would never cast him in a flashy role, but if I had a quiet character who nevertheless has to stand out somehow, he would be on the top of my list. And the great casting didn’t stop there. Sherlock is full of high-prolific actors. I even adore the performance of Pulver, even though I have some issues with the character she plays.
The first thing I noticed about the leads of Elementary was that they are both nearly impossible to understand. Perhaps you noticed by now that I'm not a native speaker, and this is certainly not the first time a TV show poses a challenge, but this is the worst case I have ever seen in any show I decided to watch. With Miller it was pretty easy to realize what the problem was: I simply don’t understand his accent. Not because it’s British (in fact, I love the more posh accent Mycroft and Sherlock use in the BBC version, it’s really easy to understand, even though it tends to sound a little bit arrogant, but since this fits the characters perfectly, I have no complains in this regard), but because he speaks a strange mix out of American and British English. With Lucy Liu, it took me some time to figure it out. First I thought that it’s because she whispers, but while both main character speak a little bit quieter than usual, it’s not THAT quiet. She also doesn’t mumble, if you concentrate, you can understand every word quite easy. And then I realized: She has next to no infliction. No matter what she says or what the mood of her character is, even when she is supposedly angry, every single word is spoken exactly the same, I can barely hear when a sentences ends.
Maybe the problem is more me and they are easier to understand for a native speaker. But just for the record: One of the main reasons I only watched a couple of selected episodes of Elementary was because this show is a chore to watch. I have to pay really close attention every single minute of it and often have to rewind to figure out what a dialogue was about.
This issue aside: I think both actors are a perfect fit and miscast at the same time. They fit the roles the makers of Elementary had in mind, but they would never make a good Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in a more traditional sense. In Lucy Lui’s case because I think she looks too smart. Yeah, an odd complain, but I think she would make a much better Holmes than Watson. In her current role she looks too much as if she could upstage Homes whenever she is in the mood to do so – and while I’m all for female power, this was never the point of Watson.
With Miller, I’m not sure how much this is a casting and how much it is a directing issue, but he looks constantly scruffy. He looks more like I would imagine Watson and not Sherlock. No, scratch that. He looks more like a modern Inspector Columbo.
Conclusion: Both show offer good actors, but in the case of Elementary not necessarily the right ones.
6. Final thoughts
I guess most people started to watch Elementary hoping for the best but expecting the worst. They ended up with a pleasant surprise in this case. With me, I was a little bit the other way around. I was hoping for the worst, but expected the best CBS has to offer. I ended up being disappointed in both regards.
I really wish that Elementary had been either really, really bad and easily to dismiss, or really, really good, something to watch during the hiatus. Sadly it is neither. It settled for being mediocre. A very polished kind of mediocre, but mediocre nevertheless. And even this would have been okay if the result would have been a mediocre Sherlock Holmes adaptation.
When it comes down to it, Elementary can barely considered adaption. If BBC had done Sherlock and had given all the characters (and the show) different names, I would have wondered immediately why the show of a consulting detective and an army doctor with so many parallels to Sherlock Holmes isn’t named this way. If CBS had done the same with Elementary, I doubt that I would have even made the connection. It’s more a show inspired by Sherlock Holmes, with the difference that this one was bold enough to slap the Sherlock Holmes label on it. With different names there wouldn’t be the problem that Elementary fails to connect to the source text on a meaningful level.
But then, if it were “inspired by it”, it would face really strong rivals, too. Monk, House, Psych, The Mentalist, Bones, just to mention a few shows which played with the concept, all done in recent years. And every single one of them better than Elementary, not necessarily in production value, but with more creative characters and plot, since those shows weren’t bogged down by the Holmes name. Even as a cop-show, Elementary is overall very generic. Perhaps enjoyable if you are into this kind of thing, but not memorable. It might have been if CBS had launched it a couple of years earlier, but now it’s a little bit late to the game. If not for the whole discussion surrounding it, it would have been wholly unremarkable.
In a way, it is similar to the Rathbone Movie-Series. It does have something to offer, but the show as a whole is spoiled by the demands and interests of an American network. The Rathbone movies have the advantage though that they were among the first adaptations ever made, and stayed influential for a long, long time. But the audience has been spoiled in the last years. With Jeremy Brett we got an actor, who was obsessed with Holmes and even had the mannerism described in the books down. It’s harder to get away with rewriting the stories now, because even non-readers have a better idea about it than just “genius detective and side-kick solves crimes”.
If you ask me, Sherlock will stay influential for a long, long time. Elementary on the other hand is certainly not a must-see for a Sherlock Holmes fan. I guess quite a few Sherlock fans watch it nevertheless, though. And why not. If you are really into this kind of crime show, Elementary, generic or not, is still a decent offer, and for someone who didn’t watch The Mentalist and Castle, this might even look fresh and compelling. If I had seen the first episodes without knowing those shows, I guess I might have been more impressed by those twisted cases.
Just for fun, I googled Elementary and BBC and looked for results from the last month. I found a myriad of posts along the line of “10 reasons why Elementary is better than Sherlock”. Why not “10 things which make Elementary a great adaptation”? It seems to me like the discussion has shifted. It’s no longer the Sherlock fans who rage. Most of them have seen Elementary, concluded that it doesn’t really pose a danger and isn’t a rip-off, and are now a little bit puzzled that there are people out there who insist that it is somehow superior. Why is it so important for the Elementary fans to gloat about the show holding its own? I don’t think that most Sherlock fans really care that much now that it’s clear that it isn’t a copy (naturally there will always be some rabid fanatics, and the larger the fandom, the more vocal they seem to be). At most they feel sad that so many Americans are missing out on the “superior adaptation” because Elementary runs on the more public network.
In any case, Elementary doesn’t have to proof that it’s better than Sherlock. They already lost this particular fight either way, it will always be the quantity show which rode on the coat tails of the quality show. But in the end, this doesn’t really matter, because what Elementary really has to proof is that it’s a worthy Holmes adaptation.
7. And now?
Well, now I’ll wait for the third season of Sherlock, while Elementary will go the way all CBS shows go. They will milk is as long as the ratings are okay, if possible until syndication. Meanwhile, I’m in the mood for even more adaptations, but ones which manage to think outside the box without losing the connection to canon. I really want one with a well done female Moriarty. Or one which is not about Watson exploring Sherlock, but Sherlock trying to figure out Watson. Or one which is not about Watson at all, but instead fills the hole for the years when Sherlock was dead and how he took down Moriarty’s network, with Mycroft (perhaps even a female one) having his back. Or one which focusses on the rivalry between Lestrade and Tobias Gregson. Or one which makes Moriarty and Moran the protagonists of the story. The possibilities are endless.