I really enjoyed this article from www.themillions.com: http://bit.ly/1fnlqiF. (It's too long to copy here, but well worth reading. Thanks to Dr. Amy H. Sturgis (amyhsturgis.com) for posting this on her Live Journal blog.
The article below is from The A.V. Club website. It's a very insightful comparison of Elementary and Sherlock, and even though I still lean towards Sherlock in my affections, the author raises some excellent points. I've mentioned on this blog before that it took me a little while to warm up to Jonny Lee Miller's portrayal of Holmes, but I do think he brings his own unique twist to the role. Cumberbatch is still my favorite, but Miller is a close second.
You can read the article at its original home here.
It’s Elementary, Sherlock: How the CBS procedural surpassed the BBC drama
One of the great things about Elementary and Sherlock, and even the Guy Ritchie films, is that the character of Watson has finally broken out of the Nigel Bruce mold. Not to completely denigrate Nigel Bruce's contribution to Holmesian film history, but he made the stereotype of Watson as an old bumbler the standard for an awfully long time. Watson ended up being a comic figure, almost the polar opposite of the brilliant figure of Sherlock Holmes. But now we have Jude Law--brave, intelligent, handsome; we have Lucy Liu--a female twist on the character, but a brilliant detective in her own right; and possibly the best actor to ever play Watson, Martin Freeman, whose depth and nuance are really astounding.
And it's more than simply casting fine actors as Watson; the balance of Sherlock Holmes and his trusty companion has been restored. In the canon, Watson is an essential element of almost all of the cases, and Holmes trusts him completely. There is a mutual admiration between the characters that is wonderful. Not that Watson isn't sometimes critical of Holmes, though...I think the recent versions mentioned above have all grappled with Watson's frustration with Holmes. Sherlock in particular has explored a very complex give and take between Holmes and Watson, wherein John becomes devoted to Sherlock as his friend, but is sometimes very angry with his callousness and his inhumanity. In Elementary as well, Lucy Liu's Joan Watson can be highly critical of Sherlock, while he can be quite cruel to her at times; but the mutual admiration and trust are always there. Jude Law's Watson seems to have a short fuse when it comes to Holmes and his idiosyncrasies, but he and Holmes still seem to respect each other.
After all, what do we know about Watson from the Conan Doyle stories? (We don't really know his middle name, but that's a subject for another time...) We know he was an army doctor, wounded in battle (in either the shoulder or the knee, or perhaps both.) We know Holmes trusts him completely, so much that when the King of Bohemia suggests in "A Scandal in Bohemia" that he would rather talk to Holmes alone, Holmes says, "It is both or none." We know that Watson is continually amazed at his friend's deductions; however, Watson never seems to have any problem following Holmes in his reasoning, and he certainly does an excellent job of recording those deductions for posterity. We know that the two men are close enough friends that, even after the good doctor gets married, he still spends a considerable amount of time with Holmes, and always seems ready to drop everything to accompany him on cases. And when it comes to the much publicized issue of Holmes's use of cocaine, Dr. Watson does not hesitate to make his displeasure known to the detective. So it makes sense that portrayals of Watson on film and TV shouldn't distill the character down to a bit of comic relief.
I realize there have been other actors in the past who haven't followed Nigel Bruce's lead in their portrayals of Dr. Watson. David Burke, the first Watson in the Granada TV series which featured Jeremy Brett as Holmes, was a particular favorite of mine. But Brett's Holmes was so brilliant, I often thought Burke, and Edward Hardwicke, who replaced him, were often overshadowed a bit. The lovely thing that's happened in the recent film and TV incarnations of Sherlock Holmes and Watson is that Watson, be it John or Joan, has emerged from Holmes's shadow, and gotten a fair share of the limelight. And interestingly enough, when Watson gets his (her) share of that light, Holmes shines all the brighter.
I remember, once I'd seen Jeremy Brett play Sherlock Holmes, arguing with my grandfather about which actor was better: Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone? My grandpa was a Rathbone man through and through; for him, Rathbone simply was Holmes. Funny thing was, my grandpa considered himself a "purist" when it came to Sherlock Holmes. And yet, compared to Brett's sometimes slavish, but almost always brilliant, portrayal of the detective, I considered Rathbone's Holmes way off base.
Nowadays, judging from many comments I've seen on Sherlockian forums, a similar debate rages: those who prefer Holmes in his Victorian element, and those who enjoy the recent programs that update Holmes to the 21st century. The Victorian crowd often consider themselves the purists in the argument; one comment I saw in a thread about Elementary said, "It's simply NOT Holmesian!" (Whatever that means...) But I often wonder, is the Victorian setting really all that important, or is it the Holmes-Watson relationship and the deductive reasoning? Or some mysterious balancing of those elements?
For example, look at Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes films compared to Elementary and Sherlock. For my money, despite the fact that Ritchie still places Holmes in a (stylized) Victorian England, the two TV shows, particularly Sherlock, do a far better job of maintaining what I would consider to be the essential character of Sherlock Holmes. But clearly, there are an awful lot of Holmes fans who completely disagree with me. Looking back to my old debate with my grandpa, though, I can see that I was kind of on the Victorian side of the argument back then. I mean, I still think Brett was a better Holmes than Rathbone, but my grandpa still thought Rathbone was more Holmesian (whatever that means) than Brett, and it apparently didn't bother him that Rathbone was fighting Nazis, brandishing guns, and driving around in cars. The setting didn't mean as much to Grandpa as the portrayal of Holmes himself.
And so the debate continues, and I doubt there will ever be much agreement. After all, Holmes fans can be a pretty devoted lot. Before there were Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans attending Comic-Con, there were Holmes fans arguing about the most minute details, playing the great game. The game is still afoot...or as Benedict Cumberbatch's Holmes says, "The game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!" But that's an argument for another day...
I will be the first to admit, when I first saw Elementary on CBS, I wasn't impressed. The BBC's Sherlock had captivated me from its very first scenes, and Elementary didn't compare...at least on my first viewing. However, after the second season of Elementary was almost halfway done (and I was still waiting for the third series of Sherlock to begin), I decided to give the show another chance. And I'm glad I did. After I took the time to "live with" the characters of Holmes and Watson as they are portrayed on the American show, I found myself really enjoying it, albeit in a completely different way from how I enjoyed the British show. So here are some of my thoughts on the differences and similarities between Sherlock and Elementary.
The most obvious similarity between the two shows is, obviously, that on both shows Holmes and Watson (and some of Doyle's other characters) have been brought into the 21st century. While this may seem to some Holmes fans to be a bold move, it is certainly not unprecedented. The famous series of films starring Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson also placed the characters in what was then a modern setting: the era of World War II. Indeed, Holmes and Watson ended up pitted against Nazis and German spies, as well as the infamous Professor Moriarty. So updating the setting from Victorian England is not as innovative as it may seem.
Sherlock does, I suppose, have a stronger link to the quintessentially English flavor of Doyle's work, as Holmes and Watson still work in London. Elementary's New York setting is a bit more divorced from the source material, and having Sherlock be the only British character among a mostly American cast gives the stories a more American "flavor." Meanwhile, the choice of Elementary's creators to transform Dr. John Watson into former Dr. Joan Watson lends a completely new dynamic to the duo. Perhaps that's why I initially preferred Sherlock to Elementary: the Holmes/Watson relationship in the British show is far more similar to Doyle's characters.
Then there's the structure of the shows: each episode of Sherlock is like a feature film, while Elementary is structured more like an American CSI drama. The episodes of Elementary are quite clearly structured with an eye towards commercial breaks happening at certain points in the story. Sherlock has a more sustained dramatic flow. Overall, the feel of Sherlock is more like a feature film, while the feel of Elementary is more like a typical American CSI show.
Finally, there's the matter of how each show makes use of "canonical material." Sherlock is loaded with references to Doyle's characters and plots; most of the episodes of the show thus far have paid some sort of tribute to stories from the Holmes canon. Elementary gives the occasional nod to characters or situations from the canon (Captain Tommy Gregson, Charles Augustus Milverton, and Silver Blaze leap to mind), but for the most part, the plots are all original material, with Holmes and Watson as the protagonists. Most interesting in this regard is probably how Elementary handles the characters of Moriarty and Irene Adler. (SPOILER ALERT!) Combining the two characters into one woman is a clever idea, and just as the dynamic between Holmes and Watson is changed by making Watson female, so is the dynamic between Holmes and his archenemy drastically altered. Having Moriarty turn out to be Holmes's former lover whom he believed dead adds new layers to the relationship. It will be interesting to see if the Moriarty plot is developed further.
Summing it all up, we have in Elementary and Sherlock two modernized Sherlock Holmes series, that approach the source material in very different ways. In my opinion, the British show is a bit more sophisticated in its style and writing, but the American show has much to recommend it to the Holmes fan. I will attempt in later posts to discuss the differences between Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller's approaches to the character of Holmes, and the differences between Martin Freeman and Lucy Liu's handling of Watson.
I'm a stay-at-home dad, and Director of Music Ministries at a United Methodist Church in Mt. Juliet, TN. And a longtime fan of Sherlock Holmes.