A brief glimpse of the new Sherlock trailer may have sent the internet into a frenzy (admittedly, much of it over John Watson’s moustache – WTF, John?) but, in what feels like a very long absence, has the BBC show’s claim to be the ultimate modern day Holmes been usurped by a pretender from overseas? It may seem heresy even to ask – but is Elementary actually better than Sherlock?
[Contains Season 1 Elementary spoilers]
The set up
Both shows have taken a fresh look at the Sherlock Holmes story, one set in modern day London, where among the other things he has to deal with, Holmes wrestles with media attention and internet fame; the other relocates Holmes to New York, with a serious addiction problem and a ‘sober companion’, Doctor Joan Watson. Yes – they made Watson a woman! Funnily enough, the world didn’t end at this, and it turns out to be a very effective updating of the tale that makes it feel fresh and unique.
Winner: UK wins for admitting that the media exists, US for bold casting choices, so it’s a tie.
As both stories are set in cosmopolitan cities, you’d expect them to reflect the nature of those cities, right? But I’m not the first nor will I be the last to question Sherlock writer Steven Moffat’s ability to write outside the ‘straight white guy’ box he favours, and so Sherlock is woefully unrepresentative in terms of people of colour, and the Chinese triad story in Series 1 felt seriously questionable in terms of its racial depictions (we’ll come back to his ideas on sexuality in a minute…). Elementary, in contrast, not only has a woman of colour in the lead but several black supporting/recurring characters, and seems comfortable portraying the city it’s set in in all its nuances. I’m not saying shows need to fill some sort of quota, of course, but if you’re setting a story in a diverse modern city, surely that needs to be reflected in the cast?
The Woman Problem
In the Conan Doyle version, Irene Adler (‘the Woman’) was an adventuress who beat Sherlock Holmes, and he forever admired and respected her for it. In Moffat’s Sherlock, she’s a (admittedly high class) sex worker who quite literally ends up on her knees being rescued by him; he doesn’t particularly seem to respect or admire her, he fancies her and treats her scornfully – though he, of course, being a Man, isn’t thrown by his emotions, whereas she, being a Weak and Foolish Woman, allows herself to be overruled by ‘sentiment’ (it’s also worth noting that while Moffat has publicly pooh-poohed any suggestion that Watson and Holmes would be lovers because they’re ‘not wired that way’ he has no problem presenting Irene Adler as a lesbian who falls in love with a man). She may be smart, but she is constantly manipulated by men – she only comes up with the idea of blackmail after Moriarty suggests it. Contrast Elementary, which uses Adler to great effect. On her introduction she comes very close to just being an example of the ‘woman in the fridge’ trope, the female character killed for no other reason than to give the male character purpose, but this is overthrown as the show unwinds. Because here Adler turns out to be Moriarty – and she is smarter than Sherlock, and she does beat him. Ultimately, both she and Holmes are victim to their own sentimental illusions – his love blinds him to her true nature, while hers makes her dangerously complacent – and in the end she is brought down not by his cleverness, but by Watson’s acute observation.
Winner: Elementary, by a country mile.
Both shows suffer slightly from the restriction of their respective formats – Sherlock can sometimes struggle to fit a whole story into 90 minutes, making it feel rushed, and Elementary, especially in the early episodes, struggled badly with the US procedural format – the general rule that whoever is in the frame for the crime before the 45 minute ad break has to be innocent by the end of the show made Holmes look actually quite stupid, since he kept guessing the wrong guy. It does seem to have solved that problem now though, and the longer running time of US series has given them plenty of time to really develop the characters. Sherlock does however win prizes for faithfulness to the canon – its episodes are inspired by Conan Doyle stories, and there’s lots of fun to be had picking up on the references to the original tales.
Winner: It’s a tie
Here, the winner seems obvious: Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch are simply flawlessly cast; both completely inhabit their roles and have presented an utterly convincing modern day pairing. It helps that they have fantastic (and, yes, fanfic baiting) chemistry: they really do feel like a married couple. They are surrounded by other quality actors – Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves, Louise Brealey and my favourite Mycroft ever, Mark Gatiss, all of whom seem perfect for their roles. But… but… Elementary has rather snuck up on me. I can’t say I was invested either way in the idea of a female Watson, but I love what Lucy Liu has done with the role, and what the show has done with her. She’s finally being allowed to move on from the tediously stereotyped ‘kick ass Asian babe’ roles she spent so much of her early career in, and comes across here as down to earth, smart and believable, the perfect foil for the more highly strung Holmes. Miller, as a heavily tattooed recovering addict who shags prostitutes for recreational relief, is a slightly harder sell at first but give him time, and he delivers a nuanced and enjoyable performance. This pair, too, have great chemistry though it’s perhaps ironic that it should feel far less sexual in nature than that of Freeman/Cumberbatch – their relationship feels very different, and, given the latitude of a US season arc, is a much slower burner than the BBC’s, which by necessity (as well as, perhaps, design) made the pair fast friends from their first adventure. The US show, too, has a top-notch supporting cast, including Aiden Quinn as a grizzled New York cop. It does lose points for casting Vinnie Jones, though.
So, on a basic tally Elementary comes out on top – of course, that doesn’t take into account the rather rapid fandom the BBC series has inspired, where the love for Cumberbatch and Freeman outweighs all other arguments. Personally, while I do find elements of Sherlock problematic, if I’m honest it inspires more genuine affection in me than Elementary (I’m really, properly excited for its return, in a way few other shows ever excite me). But ultimately it doesn’t matter – whichever show you prefer (or even if you think both are just pale imitations of the Robert Downey Jr films – unlikely, I know, but possible) it’s the fans who are the real winners, getting to enjoy two modern adaptations of one of literature’s most beloved creations.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments!
And while the only tenuous plug I can put in for my book is that there’s a Sherlock Holmes joke in it, I’m still doing that…