With the Elementary’s first season completed and BBC Sherlock’s third season still in the works, I’d like to take the time to write a potentially dangerous post: a side-by-side comparison of both of these modern reimaginings of Sherlock Holmes. By the end of Elementary’s finale, a few of us here at Nerdophiles were in agreement: Elementary had surpassed our expectations, and even dethroned Sherlock as our favorite interpretation of the Conan Doyle stories.
Now wait a minute, before you start typing angrily at me, you should know I’m of the opinion that you can be a fan of both shows. That opinion got me into hot water early on with Elementary fans, but in their defense, people were saying absolutely horrid things about the upcoming show, particularly about Lucy Liu being cast as Joan Watson. I don’t blame them for not wanting to hear, “Why can’t we all just get along?” I’d been skeptical of the show creators’ intentions early on, but I was never skeptical of Liu being cast. In fact, that was the one thing that ensured that I would be watching the show.
Joan Watson did not disappoint. None of the characters did. But I understand that some people who did give the show a chance didn’t stick with it. The trouble with 20+ episode seasons is that many episodes are bound to feel like filler, and Elementary is no exception. But the series got its sea legs, the character development was gorgeous, and the Moriarty arc in particular was stunning.
Anyone who was worried that Elementary was going to be a cheap rip-off of Sherlock needs to know that that’s not the case at all. So against my better judgment, I decided to do a side-by-side character comparison to show how Elementary is different, and how different is very, very good.
(NOTE: If you’ve managed to avoid major spoilers and wish to continue to do so, do not read the sections on Irene Adler and Moriarty.)
Sherlock Holmes/Sherlock Holmes
When Benedict Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein costar was cast to play CBS version of the modern Holmes, it somehow felt like a sort of sinister plot against the existing BBC show. In retrospect, it was probably an incredibly clever decision. If you’ve seen both versions of Frankenstein, you know that while Cumberbatch and Miller were taking turns playing both lead characters within one play, they managed to bring their own flavor to each role. They’re both stunningly brilliant actors. So who better to take a recently updated classic character and play him completely differently?
Cumberbatch is often (deservingly) praised for the way he completely immerses himself in his characters, and if you haven’t watched Elementary, I need you to read this very carefully: Jonny Lee Miller is deeply committed to and immersed in his version of Holmes as well. His speech, his mannerisms and physicality, his penchant for novelty t-shirts while also choosing to button his dress shirts all the way up, his intense emotional responses despite his efforts to stay disconnected, his passion for bees, and of course, his incredible observational skills – it all makes for a seriously compelling character, and one that is very different from all the other portrayals that are out there, while maintaining the core of who Sherlock Holmes is. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Miller talked about how he read the original Holmes as someone who generally likes to help those in need, despite his cool and sometimes detached personality. Miller also discussed working on Holmes’ physical ticks and how he felt they matched the way Holmes’ mind works. And with that, Elementary fans rejoiced all over again, because Miller gets it. He really does.
John Watson/Joan Watson
While I adore Martin Freeman’s long-suffering army doctor Watson, I’m going to be frank: Joan Watson is a hell of a lot more helpful on a case. Before Elementary was even a thing, I wondered why Sherlock would bother having John examine a body or Carl Powers’ shoe if all John ever provided was incorrect deductions or correct deductions that Sherlock had already deduced himself. Points for effort when John was left on his own in “The Great Game,” but even then, Sherlock tells John he “knew he’d get there eventually,” implying that Sherlock already had the answers he needed.
Joan, on the other hand, was solving cases on her own by the end of the season. Already sharp and observant, Joan was more than capable of growing into a high-caliber consulting detective. You’ll notice that Sherlock actively cultivated her natural talents, and praised her accomplishment. Both the professional and personal relationships between Sherlock and Joan took time to develop and we see that development, whereas it feels we missed a lot of the development between Sherlock and John. But perhaps that’s the downfall of having short seasons.
D.I. Lestrade/Captain Gregson
All I want is a silver-fox spinoff about Lestrade and Gregson working together to solve crimes while their Holmeses and Watsons are on vacation or something. Because remember, Lestrade and Gregson were the most competent officers of Scotland Yard. They’d get stuff done. But anyway, I think the only thing I really have to say in this case is that I’d like some more insight into Sherlock and Lestrade’s relationship. There are a lot of headcanons and fanfictions out there that explore Sherlock’s assumed days of drug use and Lestrade’s possible role in his recovery. But I want more. Elementary gave us Sherlock the confirmed addict and focused heavily on his feelings of failure, guilt, and his recovery, which I think was a great way to address Sherlock Holmes’ canon drug use in modern context. And it gave us Gregson, who knew Sherlock was a recovering addict before he told him, and still trusted him to get the job done. There’s a friendship and professional respect between Sherlock and Gregson that I really appreciate.
Sally Donovan/Anderson/Marcus Bell
Sally and Anderson are entirely undervalued. While Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be a step or several ahead of the police force, they’re still, you know, the police force. “Anderson lowers the IQ of the whole street” was funny for a while, but now Anderson had become synonymous with stupidity, and it’s more annoying than funny. But it’s not like the show has given fans much more to go on when it comes to secondary characters. And when the writers have given Anderson and Sally agency – particularly when they go to Lestrade with their suspicions about Sherlock – the fandom hatred comes pouring down in buckets. Sally is a competent detective with every reason to question Sherlock. But instead of considering this, fans just call her a bitch, which is as much the fault of fans’ blind love for title character as it is of the writers using potentially great secondary characters for cheap jokes.
Elementary’s Detective Marcus Bell gets the traditional introduction to Holmes, Bell is like, “Who the heck is this guy,” and Sherlock’s all “I’m a consultant and I see things you don’t [deduce deduce solve].” But the working relationship between Sherlock and Bell doesn’t end there. They actually work together. Bell is also a very competent detective. He furthers the investigation. Sherlock may have a special skill set, but he still doesn’t find everything on his own. And hallelujah, we get to know Bell as a person as well. Check out “Details” (episode 16) for some Marcus Bell backstory and some wonderful acting from Jon Michael Hill.
Mrs. Hudson/Ms. Hudson
Una Stubbs is a lovely woman and a lovely Mrs. Hudson, caring for her tenants boys while reminding them she’s not their housekeeper. It would have been easy to find someone to play a similar landlady on Elementary, but it was just as easy to make the character their own. So they gave us Ms. Hudson, a beautiful, brilliant trans woman, played by Candis Cayne, a beautiful, brilliant trans woman. It’s been said already, but this is really important. Ms. Hudson is not tokenized or stereotyped, or portrayed by a cis woman. She’s a self-taught expert in Greek and a trusted consultant on many of Sherlock’s cases. Her introduction was about the time I started hearing people say that Elementary was “trying too hard to be diverse.” News flash, guys: There’s no such thing as being “too diverse.” Pretty much everything else out there is not diverse enough, and that’s been accepted as the norm. I hope to see a lot more of Ms. Hudson in season two. Ms. Hudson consulting on cases. Ms. Hudson clearing the clutter Sherlock has made (and in the process, helping to solve a case). Ms. Hudson sitting by the fire with Joan. Give me more Ms. Hudson.
Irene Adler/Irene Adler
I’ve already written a gender-and-pop-culture paper on Sherlock’s Irene Adler, so I’ll try to keep it brief. While on the surface, Adler the dominatrix is an interesting take, giving the character both professional and sexual agency, she was also made a victim (depending on how you read the end of “A Scandal in Belgravia”) and a single line identifying her as queer was mostly used to further the reading of Sherlock and John’s relationship.
Of course, Elementary’s Irene Adler isn’t much more than a love interest for Sherlock at first. I did love the bit about her keeping the original painting instead of restoring it because it took away from the history. But let’s move on to the next character comparison so we can really talk about Natalie Dormer’s part on this show.
Ah yes, the Napoleon of crime. I was blown away by Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Jim Moriarty, particularly on the roof in “The Reichenbach Fall.” I know not everyone was into Scott’s campy portrayal, but I thought it was interesting and different. It was all a game to him, but he also appeared to be tragically unhinged.
So you have to understand, when I say Natalie Dormer is my favorite Moriarty of all time, it’s coming from someone with high expectations of the character of Moriarty. To me, this is the most common-sense consolidation of canon Sherlock Holmes characters that could possibly be made. Irene Adler is supposed to be the only woman to ever outsmart Holmes. Yet, someone else (another man) is Holmes’ greatest adversary. Why couldn’t the only woman to ever outsmart Holmes be his greatest adversary as well? Natalie Dormer plays her as clever, conniving, and sophisticated, and I am just beside myself because she rocked it. I would also like to give props to Elementary for addressing the fact that she sometimes had to do her work using men as mouthpieces, because despite being who she is, who she is is a woman and in this sexist society, it’s very conceivable that she would still have difficulty doing business with some clients. And as good as I feel about Joan being the one to figure her out, I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Moriarty and that’s really exciting.
Molly Hooper/Alfredo Llamosa
Molly Hooper is another one of Sherlock’s characters who I just need a lot more of. I don’t hold anything against her for her crush on Sherlock, but I do hope there is a dynamic shift when the show returns for it’s third season, now that Sherlock has actually addressed how important Molly is.
Like Molly, Alfredo is a non-canon character who has gained a lot of love from the show’s viewers. Particular talents of his that have gotten him into trouble in the past are now used to assist Sherlock and Joan on cases. But he’s no lackey. Like Joan, he keeps Sherlock in check, because while they genuinely want to help with cases, they are also there to monitor Sherlock’s well-being. Neither Alfredo nor Joan do that job by coddling him or taking any crap from him. Alfredo is another character that could have been limited to stereotypes of his upbringing or history with addiction and theft, but that’s not how things are done on Elementary.
If you ask me, Sherlock has something to prove in its next season, particularly after the stink that was made when Elementary was in its beginning stages. But listen, just give it a chance, guys. I promise you, the similarities between BBC’s Sherlock and Elementary end at the stories by which they were inspired. If you can’t stand to sit through the build-up (but you should, because character development!!!), go watch “M.” (episode 12), which is the beginning of the Moriarty arc.
Remember, shows are not romantic partners.
You’re not cheating on one by seeing the other.