I am not the first, nor will I be the last to draw constant comparisons between the two ‘newish’ iterations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes. For over a hundred years the aloof, arrogant and brilliant consulting detective has captivated audiences through his many versions, from the original novels to the current television portrayals of Holmes and, by extension, his companion and eternal friend Watson.
The current two shows which are giving Holmes and Watson a new look for a new, modern era are Elementary and Sherlock. Both the BBC and CBS have created excellent shows of that there is no denying, but there are several things that I personally prefer about Elementary to Sherlock. I’m not saying, before I go on, that anyone who likes Sherlock must dislike Elementary or that you’re an idiot for loving Sherlock and hating Elementary. You can like both, neither or one, I’m not bothered. Personally, I adored the first two series of Sherlock and am continuing to watch it – though I think the quality has gone downhill in its third series (including the special).
That said I’d like to share my reasons why I love Elementary and why, I think, it is the better show. Not only that, but I’d also like to try and appeal to people in England who don’t watch the American version because it’s American and assume that it’s going to be worse. ‘Sherlock is English, so the English must do it the best’ or the ‘American reboots are awful’ mentalities are silly. If you prefer Sherlock because you’ve seen both and just do, that’s fine, but there are some people in this country who don’t even give themselves a chance to love Elementary, or even enjoy it.
The first thing, and perhaps the best thing, about Elementary is Jonny Lee Miller’s wonderful and inspired rendition of Sherlock Holmes. Miller, who is an astounding actor, portrays a broken, arrogant and ultimately human Holmes. For those who haven’t seen the show, his version of Sherlock is plagued by drug addiction and his Watson, Lucy Liu, begins as his sober companion. The plot, of course, thickens and things change but Holmes’s struggles with addiction never go away and it something that the show tackles brilliantly. This addiction, which was hinted at in the books, is fully realised in this adaptation of Holmes and is a sign of the character truly being updated rather than simply transported through time. It’s this, combined with Miller’s superb and faultless acting of a flawed genius who struggles with the reality of life but is ultimately a highly moralistic person, is what sets Elementary apart from the BBC’s Sherlock. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes still, despite all the smart phones and talk of being a ‘high-functioning sociopath’, seems to be rooted in the Victorian era. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have done a wonderful job of resurrecting that character, but their show is in modern England and surely should feature a modern Holmes. Their Holmes isn’t troubled or plagued by the modern world like Elementary’s who confesses that he wonders if he had ‘been born in a different time’ would he not struggle with addiction at all? Miller’s Holmes, despite being updated, is true to the template. He is arrogant, intelligent, sometimes rude and uncaring but other times thought provoking and caring, at times. Yet, he is also something new and well realised, a chance which was, I think, missed by the BBC.
But this isn’t just a show about Holmes, Watson is also key. In Sherlock, he is John Watson, military doctor and bumbling side-kick to the brilliant Holmes, just as Watson has always been. Elementary, however, changes things. Joan Watson is an ex-surgeon, never served in the military, a strong, independent character in her own right and, of course, a woman. Why not? A few people I’ve talked to about this show have been put off by a female Watson, but it makes no difference, at all. CBS don’t play on it, they don’t force a romance or make Watson constantly talk about men or any other cliche. She is her own woman and more than a match for Holmes at times, though he is still the smartest man in the room, she acts as a detective alongside him. She isn’t just there to show how great Holmes is, she’s an equal, which is a refreshing take on the Holmes/Watson dynamic.
The key difference between these two shows though doesn’t lie in their characters, it lies in character development. Holmes and Watson evolve in Elementary, as does their relationship. From the beginning of series one to the end of that same series there is a marked change, as there is in every series of the show. They evolve, adapt and come to care for one another deeply. Sherlock, however, does not have this same drive for change. Both Holmes and Watson are exactly the same by the end as they were in the beginning, nothing is new, Watson still ‘puts up’ with Holmes and Holmes is still rude and aloof apart from the rare times he is not (so as the viewer can see why Watson stays despite being disregarded constantly). It’s partly to do with the scope that Elementary has. With 4, 24 episode series it clearly has more space to evolve the relationship. But 3 series is enough, surely? If anything, Sherlock has more room to develop as it is not bound by the procedural style that Elementary is. It can be what it wants, take as much time with Holmes and Watson as it likes and solve cases at its own pace. In an hour and a half there’s plenty of room to evolve, yet it’s something that’s rarely explored and is, for me, why the quality has gone downhill. The characters feel stale, change is good and natural. Nobody stays the same, yet in Sherlock despite Holmes’s death, Watson’s marriage and other dramatic events, they do.
These are just some of the reasons why I love Elementary, there are more: Marcus Bell and Captain Gregson being two such examples as they’re wonderful characters. It’s always going to be impossible to compare it with Sherlock, which is why I’ve spent so much time showing the differences. But, what I hope I’ve done is show that Elementary is a fresh, smart and enjoyable show. It’s packed with clever mysteries, excellent characterisation and tackles complex issues with sensitivity and care. Not only that but Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller combine beautifully to create a memorable, different but still faithful rendition of Holmes and Watson.
So, any Brits out there that are wondering what the fuss is about with this American version give it a shot, you might be surprised.