Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Personal Reflections on Sherlock vs. Elementary

Illustration by Kyle Burles

Sherlock, Elementary And Me

I have now seen every Sherlock and Elementary episode up to Elementary's second season (the third waiting patiently for me).  I have attempted to steer a steady course in the war between the Sherlockians (fans of Sherlock who have declared Sherlock to be 'the greatest show of the 21st Century) and the Elementarians (fans of Elementary who for the most part don't appear as obsessed as their counterparts).  I'm a firm believer that people are free to enjoy anything they like. 

HOWEVER, now that I have seen everything Sherlock & Elementary, after some debate, I have concluded that Elementary is better than Sherlock.   Now let me be clear (as The President often says): this isn't to say that Sherlock is terrible or lacking in quality or that Elementary is the best Canon adaptation.  This isn't even to say that Sherlock doesn't have positive qualities. This merely says that I simply prefer Elementary to Sherlock due to the following six factors.

1.) A More Believable Holmes 

As I look at The Two Sherlocks (to be referred to as BBC for Sherlock and CBS for Elementary to distinguish between them), I see that both are played by first-rate actors: Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller.  Again, let me be clear.  I am not, repeat NOT saying that Miller is BETTER than Cumberbatch either as an actor or as Sherlock Holmes.  I find that Cumberbatch is one of the strongest qualities in Sherlock, and he is a fine, fine actor.  However, CBS has a more realistic, dare I say, human quality to Sherlock Holmes that BBC doesn't have thanks to the scripts he performs.

CBS' Holmes is one who is flawed both personally and professionally.  He is not god-like in his deductive powers to where he can tell a maitre'd that his wife is about to give birth just by looking at him for about ten seconds (that little bit in The Empty Hearse has bothered me endlessly).   Instead, CBS is capable of getting things wrong.  He did with Irene Adler.  Sherlock Holmes was a reasoning being who had extraordinary powers of deduction, but he wasn't above making mistakes or being fooled.  Adler is the best example, for she outwitted him (hence his fascination with The Woman).  I'm not sure BBC could tolerate that. 

As a side note, BBC is god-like only when it is convenient.  He couldn't figure out that Mary was a master assassin, and he couldn't figure out that Irene's code was to be "SHER-locked", which let's be honest, I had figured out long before A Scandal in Belgravia ended.  I'd figured it out when it was Christmas in the episode, so what does THAT say about how powerful BBC is?

One can argue about the various intellectual powers, but the fact that CBS is human in his faults, flaws, and failings, as well as his reactions, is what makes CBS a more believable SH.  Of particular note is that CBS addresses the fact that SH is a drug addict.  Elementary strays from Canon in making SH's addiction heroin rather than cocaine, but apart from the Granada Television series with Jeremy Brett, Holmes' drug addiction has never been addressed in a television adaption.  Brett, if memory is correct, insisted that Holmes address and remove the cocaine addiction in The Devil's Foot when he realized that children were looking up to Holmes.  CBS is taking a page from them by making his addiction and recovery something to acknowledge and work with.

He attends NA meetings (reluctantly, unhappily perhaps, but nonetheless).  He has both a sober companion and a sponsor.  He even sponsors someone else.  Granted, these threads are not as big a part of the stories as perhaps they should be, but that we have them at all is a realization that SH is a person with issues.  BBC doesn't have that, using nicotine patches and making his addiction smoking (a cop-out if one asks me).

Moreover, CBS allows for something BBC doesn't: the genuine need for people.  CBS is one who has regrets and who sees he isn't above all others.  His relationship with Detective Bell in particular is of note.  CBS acknowledges that Bell may be an actual friend, and he respects Bell's abilities as a detective.  CBS in his way is pained that his arrogance nearly costs someone he genuinely (if perhaps grudgingly) respects his future, and Bell for his part has provided more than just a soundboard for Holmes. 

BBC, for his part, rarely if ever acknowledges that he might need people or that his cruelty requires anything close to an apology.  If memory serves correct he was all but shamed into recognizing that his behavior towards Molly at Christmas in A Scandal in Belgravia might have been wrong.  He also pulled a very nasty joke on Watson, perhaps the only person who has tolerated his antics and genuinely mourned him. 

That may be the key as to why CBS is more believable (not better) than BBC.  CBS I doubt would ever perpetrate such a mean-spirited (and out-of-character) prank on Watson.  CBS behaves like an actual person (albeit with a healthy dose of arrogance).  BBC can't function.  He'd never apologize to Anderson or suggest they could or should be friends. 

CBS is flawed.  BBC is allowed no real flaws.  BBC needs worshippers.  CBS needs people.  The fact that one can't recognize it and the other can lifts CBC over BBC.

2.) A More Sensible Watson

There are two types of Dr. Watsons: the Nigel Bruce and the Jude Law.  Now, the Nigel Bruce is the bumbling, blundering, bubble-brained buffoon, a person so stupid he couldn't find his way out of room if all the doors and windows were open.  The Jude Law Watson is someone who is bright on his own, loyal, a brawler and one who isn't above telling his best friend off.

It's clear that Martin Freeman's John Watson is squarely in the Nigel Bruce mode.  Let's take a look at his Watson through the three seasons.  He's been almost immolated, abducted, nearly executed at least twice, and emotionally tortured by and for Holmes.  Sherlock put him through an emotional ringer by having his best friend think they were about to get blown up just so that Watson could tell Holmes that he admired him.  He also endured a very mean prank where Holmes showed up alive but pretending to be a waiter. 

Through all that, John Watson seems almost oblivious to how much of a moron he's being made out to be. 

If that weren't enough, BBC focuses on idiotic things, like how Watson is so enraptured by SH having a girlfriend that he keeps missing the point about Charles Augustus Magnussen's danger.  Add to that the idea that John Watson continues to prefer being with Sherlock and appears to be both extremely forgiving and willing to hold him up as the genius Holmes believes himself to be and I think you have a potentially great character reduced to someone almost worst than Bruce.

Lucy Liu, on the other hand, has a different relationship to Holmes than Freeman has to Holmes.  CBS is by no means stupid.  In fact, in a few cases she has been able to put things together (though not as fast as SH).  At one point, she grew so frustrated at how quickly Holmes could figure things out she snapped some random and illogical conclusions of her own about a case that startled SH.  She did this to show him how it felt to be left out, adding that she just wanted to know HOW he did it (put the clues together).

Curiously, this is something BBC NEVER does.  In fact, the whole point of Freeman's Watson is that he DOESN'T CARE HOW he did it, only why.  That to me suggests Freeman is more interested in emotion than in thought, which puts him at odds with Liu's Watson.  Joan has gone from mere bystander to equal partner, serving as a protégé rather than a stooge.  It allows Joan to be something John isn't: to have a functioning brain.

The other big difference between CBS and BBC is that Joan wants to pull away from Holmes.  She is not satisfied with being in Holmes' shadow.  She respects Holmes, but she wants to be her own person.  When SHE is abducted, there are ramifications.  When HE is abducted, he almost casually brushes it off as 'Sherlock being Sherlock'.  BBC wants to keep his connection to Sherlock.  CBS wants to move away from his orbit, not completely but to be in it on her own terms.

Yes, John can handle a weapon, but apart from A Study in Pink I don't think he's been called on to do so.  Joan, for her part, is largely able to take care of herself.  I defy even the hard-core Sherlockians to imagine Sherlock being a mentor to John, showing him how he too can solve mysteries.  John on Sherlock serves as something of an avatar to its fans: someone who will worship the lead, holding him as infallible.  Joan on Elementary serves as something of an avatar to its fans: someone invited to solve the mystery alongside Sherlock, a flawed person.

The fact that the Sherlockian I talked to said that while she had never read Canon (and didn't care to), she had been told Canon Watson was a bumbling idiot like Martin Freeman plays I think says all there is to say about Sherlockians connection to the truth.

3.) A More Realistic Moriarty

Calling A Moriartorium on the
Sherlockian/Elementarian War
We have a tale of Two Moriartys.  Now, I know a lot of Sherlockians love the wild, camp, over-the-top take of Andrew Scott, but for me, I never could believe he was a threat.  I think Charles Augustus Magnussen from His Final Vow was more believable (even if he wasn't all that great either).  For me, someone screaming indicates someone out of control, and one thing a master criminal needs is to be in full control.

James Cagney said it best when discussing how to play villains.  Bad guys don't see themselves as bad guys, I believe he said.  This is how Natalie Dormer plays her Moriarty (and yes, making Moriarty a woman...and Irene Adler to boot...was and is still extremely divisive in the Holmesian universe).  Dormer's Moriarty is a cold, calculating, shrewd individual.  She is methodical and intelligent, and I think a closer portrayal of Canon Moriarty as Holmes' intellectual equal.

That is something I never got from Scott.  I never thought he was Holmes' intellectual equal.  He just struck me as a megalomaniacal Bond-like villain, with some pretty outlandish ideas that seemed destined to be too grandiose to be believed.  I never took him to be a threat.  I took Dormer to be a threat to Sherlock Holmes. 

I stand by my view that Natalie Dormer's Moriarty is a better and more sensible and more realistic antagonist than Andrew Scott vamping it up for all its worth in a harebrained scheme too stupid to be believed...except by Sherlockians.

4.) More Believable Plots

One of the big digs against Elementary is that it is a CBS police procedural.  You've got a mystery, suspects, one or two red herrings, and a resolution, all within an hour.  Well, two points on that.  First, so what if it's a police procedural?  Is there anything really wrong with that?  Second, what the hell then is SherlockHamlet by way of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss?

Sherlock isn't this unimpeachable work of art, this epic of television history that cannot be questioned for plot holes and continuity errors.  Sherlock, I'm sad to tell the Sherlockians, IS a police procedural as well.  You've got a mystery, suspects, one or two red herrings, and a resolution, all within an hour and a half.  The only real difference is that Elementary has to keep things within an hour unless it's a two-part story.  Sherlock can keep things going (sometimes to its detriment, to where some episodes appear to drag and be patted). 

If we look at the plots to Sherlock and Elementary, we can see the former is more sprawling that it allows for a longer mystery, we also see that sometimes the stories are so outlandish that they slip from reality (even Sherlock's own reality) and into fantasy.  The biggest example is The Empty Hearse.  We get a lot of teases about how Sherlock Holmes survived his 'death' but never a definitive, logical answer.  The same Sherlockian who stated that she knew Canon Watson was suppose to be stupid also stated that she didn't care if his death and resurrection were NEVER explained.  She compared it to a magician's trick.

Well, Sherlock isn't a magician (The Doctor on Doctor Who may be turned into one, but that's another matter).  Sherlock is a detective.  He is there to solve crimes.  If he isn't solving crimes, then what good is he? 

Elementary may be standard in terms of presenting a new case every week and, unlike Sherlock, rarely going for long story arcs.  However, at least their plots are almost always logical and I'm pretty sure sane.   If CBS faked his death, it wouldn't be left to 'well, we really don't care but we're glad he's alive'.  There would be repercussions and moreover an actual answer. 

One last part, but a major one about the difference between Sherlock and Elementary, which ties in to the next point.  We have in the latter actual character development for the characters.  Even Sherlock evolves and changes.  "I'm better with you, Watson," CBS tells her at one point.  It's an acknowledgment that Sherlock Holmes needs people.  In Season Two his relationship with Mycroft was one fraught with tension but also with genuine love between them.

Can either of those, Sherlock acknowledging he's better with his Watson or needs him, or a sincere love between Mike and Sherl, ever really appear on Sherlock

5.) A Stronger Supporting Cast

This is an obvious point.  On BBC, the characters of Anderson, Lestrade, Donovan and Molly are pretty much dimwits who serve only to show how much more clever Sherlock is.  It got to the point that with the exception of Molly they could believe that Sherlock was himself a criminal, perpetrating crimes to make himself the hero.  I never believed this plot device in The Reichenbach Fall, that someone especially like Lestrade would be so quick to accept that Sherlock was behind the cases he solved.

If you think about it, the secondary characters in Sherlock don't have lives outside working with Sherlock.  Apart from the fact that he likes football and pubs, what does anyone really know of Lestrade?  What's he like as a person?  Why would he consider Sherlock a friend when a.) Sherlock is so cruel to him, and b.) he was quick to believe he was some sort of crazed criminal?  I can't remember seeing much of Donovan in Season Three and I never got why Anderson went from a Sherlock Hater to the President of The Empty Hearse Club.

On CBS, the two main secondary characters of Captain Tobias (now known as Thomas) Gregson and Marcus Bell are an important part of Elementary.  They aren't there just to praise famous men.  In fact, sometimes they don't praise Sherlock Holmes.   Gregson once actually punched Holmes and Bell has told Holmes off more than once.  They do what the Sherlock supporting characters never do: stand up to Holmes and tell him where to stuff it.

Furthermore, they have lives outside Holmes.  We've seen Gregson's troubled marriage and Bell's struggle to return to the force after Holmes' actions led to him being shot and nearly losing use of his arm.  They have lives, they have issues, and best of all, they have intelligence.  

One of Sherlock's selling points is that no one is smarter than Sherlock Holmes...period.  One of Elementary's selling points is that no one is smarter than Sherlock Holmes...but that others aren't stupid either.   They are an integral part of Holmes solving the crimes, and CBS has a respect for Gregson and Bell that BBC never has. 
6.) A Stronger Irene Adler

This one perhaps is the weakest, but still one worth examining briefly. 

At the end of the day BBC's Irene Adler is a hooker.  Yes, she's a dominatrix (paging Moffat as Sexist), but essentially someone paid to have sex with.  That's a hooker.  CBS gave their Irene a backstory (an art restorer who is also a master thief/forger), but also allowed in a remarkable hour to let a real, human, and natural romance to blossom between Adler and Holmes.  In nearly two hours we didn't see much that would suggest the "lesbian" Irene could genuinely feel love for Sherlock.  In less than an hour, we could believe that of CBS. 

CBS had a career and life outside Holmes.  BBC's whole purpose was to be a foil for Holmes, nothing more or less.  Why should I really care if her head is cut off (and how did Sherlock manage to get there to rescue her in time)?

It's not as if Elementary is perfect.  I think it could do a better job with some of its mysteries, and certainly with the characters like Ms. Hudson and Alfonso (both wildly underused).  I'd also like to see Clyde more often, but that's a personal thing.

I think the fact that Sherlock Holmes HAS a pet turtle shows CBS has a functioning human as a character, while BBC wouldn't dare put in something so wryly humorous to spoil its more 'serious' tone. 

I now confess that I simply prefer Elementary over Sherlock, not just for the above reasons, but for one more. 


Few fanbases have been so irritating and obnoxious in their demeanor.  Sherlockians, who believe Canon is rubbish and not as good as Sherlock.  Sherlockians, who think Sir Arthur Conan Doyle should watch Sherlock to see how the character should really be written as.  Sherlockians, who think Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss created the characters.  Sherlockians, who think Benedict Cumberbatch is the first, last, and only Sherlock Holmes.  Sherlockians, who think any other version of Holmes, be it Jonny Lee Miller or Robert Downey, Jr., or even Jeremy Brett, Vasily Livanov, or Basil Rathbone, either don't exist or are lousy because they aren't Benny.   Sherlockians, who think their show is the height of intellectual television but don't care if it doesn't make sense.  Sherlockians, who will verbally assault those who disagree with them be in about Elementary or any non-Sherlock version.  Sherlockians, who ship John and Sherlock but are disgusted by the idea of a Joan/Sherlock romance. 

Few fanbases have been as irritating as Sherlockians.  Few fanbases have made me dislike what they are passionate about as Sherlockians.  They had already poisoned the well before I approached A Study in Pink, and while I have found things to admire in Sherlock, I have also found thinks to criticize.  This they take as a personal affront to "the greatest show of the 21st Century".

If there is such a thing as an Elementarian/Sherlockian war, it started with the Cumberbitches. 

Yet in all this, there is still hope.  I for one will probably lean more Elementary than Sherlock, though I'm the first to admit I'm not a full-fledged Elementarian or a total Sherlock hater. Sometimes Elementary will be bad, sometimes Sherlock will be good.  I can only hope that Sherlockians will truly go beyond their show and look at Canon, at Brett and Livanov, to see different and perhaps better takes on the character they claim to love.

It's your choice: you either love all of Sherlock Holmes, or you love only Sherlock.  You can love both, but you can't claim to love just one. 

Let's follow the good example of the Reigning Holmeses: Mr. Benedict Cumberbatch and Mr. Jonny Lee Miller and have Sherlockians and Elementarians hug it out...

If THEY can embrace each other, why can't Sherlockians and Elementarians too?  Yes, I like Elementary better than Sherlock, but I respect certain aspects of Sherlock.  Perhaps in time, I too will learn to love Sherlock, once the fans have calmed themselves down.  I'm willing to reexamine things and work to remove my own prejudices.  In return, I urge Sherlockians to do likewise and embrace the full Holmesian universe: Canon, Rathbone, Brett, the non-Canon novels from Enola Holmes to Mary Russell. 

There's more to Sherlock Holmes than Sherlock.  There is room for all.

I've said my piece, and now, let us embrace one another: lion and lamb, Jew & Gentile, Protestant and Catholic, Sherlockian and Elementarian.


  1. Balderdash & poppycock, my final two words on the subject.

  2. You may wish to give credit to Kyle Burles who was the artist for the first picture you included in this article. (with the yellow background)

    1. Thank you for letting me know who created it. Credit has been duly noted.

      BTW, it's a beautiful creation.

  3. My primary objection to this comes from your second illustration. For the love of god, some other deity, logic or simple knowledge, can people please get the positioning of a chess board correct. In celebrating either show and the world's first consulting detective, we emphasize the details because they make a difference. The white square goes in the lower right corner, not the lower left. Getting this wrong swaps the position of the king and queen and results in an egregious error that no Sherlockian or Elementarian should make.

    1. I don't play chess so I wouldn't have noticed the error. Therefore, that is beyond my realm of knowledge. Thank you for pointing that out.

  4. A very good argument for your preference. I think you are however a little late in using Sherlockians to just describe the fans of Sherlock since the previous argument on the subject was Holmesians are UK, and Sherlockians are Americans. Other than that I found most of your argument very valid.

    1. That's the curious thing: I'm American, but always called myself a Holmesian. I used to use Sherlockian and Holmesian pretty interchangeably, but BBC Sherlock fans have been pretty insistent on being called "Sherlockians" and have held on to that tenaciously.

      Be that as it may, I'm not one to fight over semantics. I think BBC Sherlock seems to be a good term to describe the show.

      Thank you for reading, and I hope you found it interesting and informative.

  5. "At the end of the day BBC's Irene Adler is a hooker. Yes, she's a dominatrix (paging Moffat as Sexist), but essentially someone paid to have sex with".

    Incorrect. Most professional dominatrices do not have sex with clients.

    So there's that.

    1. I'm not one for dominatrixes, so I wouldn't know the difference.

      However, I find BBC Sherlock's Irene to be a step back when it comes to The Woman. She is no longer a powerful intellect. She's now a hot body, using her sexual prowess to get her way.

    2. Hi, over from Sherlock Peoria. I have to say, I never read canon Irene as a powerful intellect, but an average one, who is observant and good at disguise. I was taken aback at BBC Irene's chosen profession, but I can sort of see why they did it. Whatever 'adventuress' actually means, I think it was Victorian for something that shocked people and made them uncomfortable. These days, it takes being a dominatrix to be equivalent.

      As to your main thesis, I can see where you're coming from, I just wish CBS would write a bit smarter. Canon Holmes doesn't come across as maladjusted; well, not any more than your average Victorian gentleman; he was young, ambitious, quite arrogant (as young people can be), and perhaps a bit hyperactive, but he mellowed considerably as he got older and more experienced. Neither CBS nor BBC have an accurate Holmes; they're both quite flawed, but in different ways; they took something from the original and exaggerated it into a primary character trait. It irritates me a bit.

      As for both shows' supporting casts, they're no different than any other TV show that makes the other characters underwhelming in order to make the hero(es) look better (again, poor writing).

      I do like both shows, BBC more than CBS; I tend to take all the adaptations as alternate universes and enjoy them differently than the canon.

      All of this rambling is entirely my opinion, of course. Thank you for an interesting and thought provoking read.

      Korina, wondering where all this even came from ;-)

  6. As a fan of both shows (and a fan of Cumberbatch's from before the advent of "Sherlock"), I read your analysis with great interest. I thought your commentary on Adler and Moriarty to be spot on. Even though I disliked the CBS Adler/Moriarty storyline, I still found her a more compelling character than both the BBC Adler and the BBC Moriarty.

    I am curious as to your view on the two Mycroft Holmes (BBC's Mark Gatiss and CBS's Rhys Ifans). Also, how do you think the relative difference between UK and US television has affected character development (e.g. with CBS's Gregson and Bell as opposed to BBC's Molly and Lestrade)?

    1. W/regards to the Mycrofts, I prefer Ifans over Gatiss for the following reasons. Ifans' Mycroft was to me, more human when it came to his relationship w/Sherlock. There seemed to be a mutual love/loathing between Mycroft & Sherlock that many brothers have. Gatiss, on the other hand, was perpetually snooty and so remote it seemed to stretch believability that these two were related in some way.

      Of course, I think Gatiss is essentially playing himself as Mycroft, but that's another story.

      It is clear though that the supporting characters in "Elementary" are stronger and more believable than in "Sherlock". We've had stories involving Gregson's family, and a whole arc w/Detective Bell that allowed them to be real and not just sounding boards for Sherlock. We see the relationships grow between Gregson/Bell and Holmes, where it evolves from grudging work to something like respect, even friendship.

      If you look at Molly and Lestrade, I think they come of as cardboard & one-dimensional. As I said, apart from him going to pubs what do we really know about Lestrade as a person? Molly's whole existence seems to be built around worshipping Sherlock and mooning over him. What does she do when she's not in the lab: go to Empty Hearse meetings? Back to Lestrade, but I NEVER bought the idea that a.) he would so quickly believe Holmes faked his crimes to get attention (The Reichenbach Fall) or that he'd so willingly embrace Holmes as a friend (The Empty Hearse). We never saw Lestrade so much as like Holmes, so the idea of him toasting 'old friends' is laughable.

      I could believe Gregson & Bell toasting a late Sherlock. I can't from Lestrade.

      In short, "Sherlock" has an unfortunate habit of making SH almost God-like to where he's not someone I could believe exists. "Elementary", while not perfect, has a more believable SH. I can believe he is a brilliant detective, but also a deeply flawed man. "Sherlock" has a hard time making SH human, and that is a reason I am not a fan.

      Sorry for the long response, and thanks for reading.

  7. I still really like both shows and I agree with you: like what you like, and don't be a dick to those who disagree with you. Funny how I see people trashing Elementary for not being faithful enough when, compared to Sherlock, we've seen more characters and actual plotlines (albeit tweaked) turned into episodes from the original stories. Plus, when you think about it, Elementary is also closer in terms of length, given most of Holmes canon is short stories with a fairly small scope.

    1. I'm not w/o sin in this aspect. Sometimes I've been too harsh w/Sherlock. I've learned that when it comes to Sherlock adaptations and variations, there can be a wide variety. I think my reaction was against "Sherlock" fans than "Sherlock" the show (though I still struggle to like the show itself). So long as others respect Elementary and other adaptations as Rathbone, Brett, and Livanov, I should show the same to Cumberbatch & "Sherlock".

      Besides, the trailer for "The Abominable Bride" piques my interest. Here's hoping we get a good story.


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Thank you.