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.