Sherlock vs Elementary


by Noor Alnaqeeb (@nooralnaqeeb)

Warning: Read on at your own risk, but I’m assuming you’ve all seen the first episode of both Sherlock and Elementary. (If not, you should).

For those of you out there who are unfamiliar with both Sherlock and Elementary, I whole-heartedly suggest you familiarize yourself with both series. If not for the enjoyment of its entertainment then for the endless comparison and controversy that will soon follow.

In 2010, Sherlock rose from the airwaves of British television as a BBC adaptation of Sir Conan Arthur Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock reveals the 19th Century London legend in 21st Century London starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. British creator, British actors and British humor.

Elementary is CBS’s controversial 2012 version of the consulting detective’s exploits in New York starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu. American creator, mostly American actors and American humor. Let the endless comparisons, Internet rivalries and culture wars begin.

My purpose as a blogger, who’s in love with everything Sherlock, is to try and wade through all the controversy and bring you a true comparison between both versions. There are, after all, huge differences in both series that are as easy to miss as King Kong scaling the Empire State building with a flailing blonde in his arms.

Difference #1: Sherlock is set in London while Elementary is set in New York. 

Difference #2: Sherlock’s John Watson is a doctor turned injured war veteran while Elementary’s Joan Watson is a doctor turned sobriety companion.

Difference #3: Cumberbatch has alien-like razor sharp cheekbones and Miller has epic stubble.

And yes, I did just say that Elementary’s Dr. John Watson is in fact a woman, but more on that later.

Sherlock Holmes. He is calculated yet spontaneous, ingenious yet dumbfounded in social situations and highly informed, yet blissfully ignorant towards the simple science of people’s emotions. As Cumberbatch puts it so simply, Psychopath? I’m a high functioning sociopath. Do your research.”  His sporadic nature is present in both series and rightfully so. To portray him as anything but his eccentric self is a crime worth investigating in its own right.

The main character-defining trait that has separated Sherlock and Elementary are the phases of their lives Sherlock Holmes seems to find himself in. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock highlights the youthful arrogance of Mr. Holmes while Elementary suggests that the difficulties of an easily bored, naturally born genius have already taken their toll on the compelling character.

Elementary’s Holmes is suggested to be running from something – or someone. Infamous criminal mastermind, former love interest and absolute nutcase Irene Adler, perhaps? It would be a good explanation as to why Sherlock Holmes, the literary legend of London, inexplicably left London. She could also be the reason behind his drug rehabilitation and relocation to New York.

BBC Sherlock’s illustration of the detective’s drug problem is only implied as a shadow of his past. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is instead crass and extremely unforgiving of those who “suffer” from a lower IQ than his own. In his own words, and on more than one occasion, “What is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring!”

The differences between them are subtle, but vital in separating the two characters as different adaptations. If Elementary were to further establish itself, a word of warning would be to distance itself as far as possible from everything BBC-Sherlock. If not to dodge an inevitable law suit, then to avoid the endless scrutiny it would receive if parallels were drawn from both series. Elementary is patently Sherlock’s junior and therefore, by default, that of less originality.

Now, let’s psychoanalyze his trusty counterpart, Dr. John/Joan Watson. In both Sherlock and Elementary, Watson is the character we are first introduced to. Watson is not the mystery we are yet to unfold, but the template of which the rest of the episode falls on.

Both Watsons have pasts that haunt them; crutches they hold onto. John’s literal crutch for a post-traumatic-stress-induced psychosomatic limp and Joan’s crutch is her newfound profession as a sobriety consultant, disguising her pain as a disgraced doctor. Both seek solace in assisting Sherlock.

Fans might question Elementary’s ability to maintain the same essential dynamic between Watson and Sherlock, as it is the bedrock of the books and of its fan base. The union of the doctor and detective seems forced upon the audience as a consequence of Holmes’ drug use with Watson as Sherlock’s acquaintance or “glorified helper monkey”.

This forced alliance is not mirrored in Sherlock. Instead Watson and Holmes are brought together by chance and end up living in the same apartment, as friends. Sherlock’s ability to bring forth the instantaneous brother-like bond between Sherlock and Watson is incontestable.

As a Sherlock fan, if the choice were to be watching Sherlock and Watson as acquaintances or friends, I would gladly pick the latter. The banter is much more enjoyable. Although, Sherlock Holmes fans can rest at ease where the doctor detective duo is concerned, as Elementary’s appreciation of their relationship, although in its early stages, seems to be coming along well. We needn’t worry about their conflicting personalities or the conditions under which they met; the brotherly bond will develop eventually. But, we’ll just have to wait and see exactly how far it develops. Sexual tension, anyone?

Speaking of which; if you missed it and I doubt you did, let’s playback the anxiously awaited dialogue between Joan and Sherlock’s first encounter in Elementary. It went something like: Sherlock looks pensively into Watson’s eyes and asks, “Do you believe in love at first sight?” A few more “oh-my-gosh is he actually confessing his love to Watson” moments later and we have the picturesque ending of “I have never loved anyone as I do you right now, in this moment.”

Unbeknownst to Joan (and the entire gob smacked audience) Sherlock was merely reciting the dialogue from a movie that had been playing in the background alongside eight other movies… An experiment. Of course. Smart way to address the massive gender-switch orientated elephant in the room, though.

Elementary’s potential Joan-Sherlock romance is reminiscent of the Bones-Booth, Beckett-Castle and Sarah-Chuck “will they, won’t they” storyline, and we all know they usually will. But maybe this friendship is merely the Watson-Sherlock bromance we all already know; perhaps one of the bros just happens to be a woman.

We are yet to be presented with characters in Elementary such as Moriarty, the omnipresent criminal mastermind, Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother and Lestrade, the detective inspector. Lestrade may or may not have been reincarnated as Irish-American NYPD Captain Gregson. If not; the “later phases of life” Sherlock theory could have substance; where Miller’s Sherlock has left London and Lestrade behind him.

An absolute kick-ass explanation for leaving London is definitely due soon as fans have been blogging furiously about the potential loss of Sherlock’s authenticity. Their fear that Sherlock’s validity might be lost in translation stems from the fact that Sherlock is a character woven from the thread of British culture. So, removing Mr. Holmes from Baker Street and London as a whole in Elementary might harm the show’s reputation.

Elementary’s main character might be named Sherlock Holmes, but the series has to prove itself Holmes-worthy before it is widely accepted as a true adaptation. They need to answer the age-old question of what is in a name? Without the strings attached to the words “Sherlock” and “Holmes”, Elementary could easily be a perfectly acceptable run-of-the-mill crime drama with an eccentric lead the public has already met.

Many questions remain unanswered but, for now, one answer is eagerly awaited. Will Elementary succumb to the traditional Crime Scene Investigation format of television crime drama, or will it carve its own path into the legend that is Sherlock Holmes?

Photo credit: CBS, BBC


  1. ErinOctober 1st, 2012 at 12:02 pm

    You gave Elementary a lot more credit than I was originally willing to give, but I’m glad you did because you have changed my mind on the Watson-is-a-Woman thing: I was mad that they felt they needed to make John into Joan in order to have the sexual tension without upsetting American audiences and that they NEEDED the tension, but I am feeling differently now. The will they/won’t they is actually pretty interesting this way because, for the first time, it’s actually not clear if they will. But, I do hope they bring Irene Adler in because it would be a waste not to do so.
    On a last note, though, I’m not yet convinced either that this is going to live up to being The Sherlock Holmes or if it will just be a crime show with a similar name on the character.

  2. NoorOctober 1st, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Yeah I agree I think the verdict on the whole Watson as a woman thing really depends on the next few episodes. I’d really like them to start explaining why he left London. Maybe we’ll see Irene Adler in flashbacks first?

  3. nerdybird80October 2nd, 2012 at 4:31 am

    I honestly believe that they won’t. I think there will be some tension there but I think the underlying vulnerability of their characters will always overshadow that… and that is what bonds them… they are both broken in some ways but with each other they are more whole.

    I was actually quite surprised at how much I ended up liking Elementary. I sort of like the more haggard, slightly punk Holmes that we get with Miller. It makes the show interesting to me and sets it apart from Sherlock.

  4. silver priceOctober 2nd, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    The first known use of this phrase was in the 1915 novel, Psmith Journalist, by P. G. Wodehouse. It also appears at the very end of the 1929 film, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, the first Sherlock Holmes sound film. William Gillette , who played Holmes on stage and radio, had previously used the similar phrase, Oh, this is elementary, my dear fellow. The phrase might owe its household familiarity to its use in Edith Meiser ‘s scripts for The New Adventures of Sherlock Holmes radio series, broadcast from 1939 to 1947.

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