Pop-Culture Connoisseur: BBC’s Sherlock vs. CBS’s Elementary

-Brianna Huber

When word that CBS was planning to create their own modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes reached the creators of BBC’s Sherlock, they did not take the news well. Sue Vertue, an executive producer of Sherlock, told the press that CBS was interested in doing a remake of the BBC series; but after their interest came to naught, CBS went their own route, and Elementary was born.

When news of Elementary first appeared, I worried that it would be an Americanized rip-off of the BBC series. To add to the drama, CBS cast Jonny Lee Miller as their Sherlock Holmes. Miller was already friends with Benedict Cumberbatch, the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, after the two actors starred together in a National Theatre production of Frankenstein.

While I worried about developments with Elementary, I was also undeniably curious. When the show’s pilot aired on September 27th last year, I tuned in. It’s been almost a whole season now and I’ve actually grown to like the show. It’s completely different from BBC’s Sherlock and for me, the two are able to peacefully co-exist.

Sherlock begins when Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (Martin Freeman) are introduced by a mutual friend because they’re both in search of a flatmate. They move in together at 221B Baker Street in London and adventure inevitably ensues. A lot of characters from the original stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle are around – including Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), and of course, the nefarious Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) – but there are also new ones, like lab tech Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) and Anderson (Jonathan Aris), whose sole reason for existing seems to be to annoy Sherlock.

Sherlock and John are now on a first-name basis. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is often bitter and aloof, with moments of genuine affection here and there. If Sherlock lets his warmer side show, it’s usually only around John. When he makes deductions, he talks so fast it’s hard to keep up, but that works well in giving the viewer a sense of what it might be like inside his head. Freeman’s John is a retired army doctor who’s recently returned from Afghanistan. Where Sherlock’s the brain, John is the brawn and the heart. When Sherlock goes overboard with his deductions or insults someone, John is the one to smooth it over and bring him back into line. As in the ACD stories, John acts as a “reflector of light” for Sherlock to bounce ideas off of.

Elementary is different from Sherlock in almost every way. Instead of London, it takes place in New York; and instead of having a white, male Watson, the show has Lucy Liu as Joan Watson.

The set-up is that Sherlock is just out of drug rehab and Watson has been hired by Sherlock’s father to be his “sober companion” and prevent him from relapsing. Watson is a former surgeon who left medicine after one of her patients died on the operating table. Both Sherlock and Watson have their own emotional baggage and aren’t as quick to take to one another as their BBC equivalents, but when they do, their dynamic is wonderful.

Compared to Cumberbatch’s interpretation, Miller’s Sherlock has a much softer side. He’s nicer. He still comes with plenty of eccentricities and a dark side that comes out on occasion, but his sarcasm has a more lighthearted vibe to it. He’s more open to input from others, as well as the possibility that he can sometimes be wrong.

Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is tall, svelte, and wears suits and dress shirts while Miller’s take on the character is a bit scruffier, covered in tattoos, and wears jeans and ironic t-shirts.

In Elementary, Watson’s role in Sherlock’s life is a lot more hands-on. In Sherlock, Sherlock and John are best friends and would each die for the other if necessary, but Sherlock does most of the deducing and John’s sort of along for the ride. With Joan Watson, we get to watch her grow. With each new case, she learns more about how Sherlock operates, or draws from her medical background and makes her own intellectual contributions to solving the mystery at hand.

While Sherlock has a large number of ACD characters, Elementary has very few. For a while, I worried that the show didn’t feel “Holmesian” enough and too much like another police procedural, but after seeing the most recent episode, I have a newfound hope. Right now, with our first hint toward Moriarty, there are a lot of possible routes for the show to take.

When Elementary first aired, it created a great schism within the Sherlock Holmes fandom–BBC fans on one side, CBS fans on the other. Since then, things have settled down. It’s clear now that Elementary is nothing like Sherlock. It’s possible to be a fan of both shows at the same time.

If you’re a fan of Sherlock Holmes and haven’t yet seen either of these two shows, I recommend checking them out; and if you like them both, don’t worry about picking a side.

Images used in illustration from BBC Press Office and http://fempop.com

2 thoughts on “Pop-Culture Connoisseur: BBC’s Sherlock vs. CBS’s Elementary

  1. KD Huber

    Nice! well done. Its true, you can be fan’s of both and in some way’s keep them separate. They may have some of the same names but if you know a Bob does that mean if you meet another Bob their the same person? I think not…so they have some of the same points…they’re still different. The author of this piece writes very well. 😉

  2. Holly

    I wouldn’t say that Joan is somehow more involved in the crime solving than John. I think the prodicers of Elementary try to throw moments of Joan’s Medical knowledge helping to solve the case into bold relief, and they have her doing the police job of interrogating people with Sherlock; but John is no bystander in the cases. In the very first episode, he saves Sherlock’s life (unless of course, Sherlock picked the right pill, but we’ll never know). There’s also the Hounds of Baskerville when John is there to pull rank to help Sherlock get into the facility.

    In Elementary, Joan is always asleep when Sherlock pieces things together. Joan certainly has some skills, but she is not somehow more active in the crime solving than John. It’s John’ military skills more than he medical experience that plays a part in the crime solving on Sherlock. And the story does not take a huge pause to highlight John’s contributions on the BBC Show like Elementary pauses to highlight Joan’s usefulness.

    It is possible for people to be a fan of both. I tried to like Elementary because I like th actors in it. It may get better with better writers and producers. I just don’t care for most proceedural crimes shows that aren’t Bones (great ensemble cast with distinctive personalities) or Cold Case.

    I love the BBC Sherlock for the same reason I love Joss Whedon’s Shows. The Characters are distinctive. Even the supporting characters like Mrs Hudson, Lestraude, Molly Mycroft; and minor chracters like Sally and anderson contribute things to the story. It has hilarious comedy and compelling tragedy. The mysteries are well contructed puzzles and the character interaction propells the story.

    The BBC Sherlock discovers his own humanity in the first two series, and that the people in his life are actually inportant too him. Elementary shows a Sherlock who continually dwells on his past.

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