Holmes improvements? The many Sherlocks of TV

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Photo credit: CBS network
Photo credit: CBS network
Photo credit: CBS network
 In 2010, the American network CBS launched their update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective stories – a move that was viewed by many fans and critics as largely unnecessary. Really, it seemed like an attempt to cash in on a franchise that had undergone a successful revival, with Robert Downey Jr.’s blockbuster adaptation preceding the BBC phenomenon that put Benedict Cumberbatch on the map. Moffat’s version had already brought the detective into the 21st century, utilizing modern technology within the narrative effectively for the most part, breathing fresh life into Conan Doyle’s tales. This new vision, titled Elementary, consequently gave the distinct impression of being an unnecessary imitation of a show already worshipped, rather than having any sort of creative message of its own. Changing John to Joan Watson seemed like a gimmick and essentially Elementary was almost written off, particularly by critics, before the first episode aired. It was unexpected, then, that the CBS procedural show would manage to surmount the damning expectations laid before it, and find an original identity within the canon.

Obviously, the first point of comparison between Sherlock and Elementary is the decision of the latter to make half of the central duo female. Cumberbatch and Freeman play the relationship traditionally, though Watson is given greater respect and agency in their adaptation than in Conan Doyle’s novels. The vision of Moffat and Gatiss portrays Watson as arguably the more impressive of the two; for all his genius, Sherlock lacks the moral fibre and courage of his veteran partner. They are drawn together by coincidence, learn to grudgingly respect one another, and become a tentative unit as a result. By contrast, Elementary leans on the absolute lack of coincidence in bringing Holmes and Watson together. Joan Watson arrives as a former surgeon, turned sober companion, to ensure that Sherlock does not relapse into his heroin addiction. The fact that her job mandates she live with him allows her to be drawn into the work he does naturally, consulting for the NYPD on a case-by-case basis. This is something that lends the show a depth of authenticity that Sherlock eschews in favour of its beautiful stylistic sequences. However, the real triumph of the female Watson, is that Elementary entirely subverted expectations by ignoring the possibility of romantic chemistry between the two. Really, I think there are probably far more fan sites devoted to the pairing of Cumberbatch and Freeman, than Lee Miller and Liu.

A criticism regularly levelled at Moffat is that he creates poor female characters, lacking depth. Within Doctor Who this is debatably an unfair judgement of his work, but Sherlock is a fair train wreck for the women in it. Molly, the pathologist, is in love with Holmes. I think I am justified in saying that this is probably her dominant character trait (though it is worth noting that, due to the three-episode nature of the series, none of the supporting characters are given a lot of depth, male or female). Mrs Hudson does not feature much in Elementary or Sherlock, though her nature as a peripheral character, generally uninvolved in the crime solving, explains this. However, I would say the largest gulf between the two shows in their adaptations and treatment of female characters is Irene Adler, Homes’ love interest. Sherlock introduces her as a dominatrix, briefly in control of her situation with Holmes, before being overcome by her feelings for him. One does not want to be too fussy with these things, but even the Victorian short story from which this episode was adapted managed to be more progressive than this. Elementary in contrast, offered an Irene Adler with a twist.

Spoilers for season one ahead. Elementary had Irene Adler murdered in Holmes’ past, causing him to turn to heroin, before he discovered her as a hostage of Moriarty’s. The revelation that Irene actually is Moriarty, far from appearing to be a simple shock tactic, is dissected by the show, painstakingly presenting the viewer with all the reasons that it makes absolute sense for Sherlock to love someone who matches his own genius, albeit with a more malevolent agenda. Again, a relationship between Holmes and Moriarty was shipped by fans of Sherlock to the extent that it was included as part of a theory of how Sherlock escaped death at the end of the second season. Moriarty, right back to Conan Doyle’s novels, has always been Holmes’ equal, his match, his greatest nemesis, so to combine the role with that of the love interest, not only elevated the character of Irene from the peripheral roster of supporting characters, but added a further dimension to the relationship with Holmes. Ultimately, Elementary accords its female characters far more gravitas and respect than its BBC counterpart does, and though some might not see this as the most important aspect of a production, it serves to create a more balanced, authentic world for the characters to develop in.

However, Sherlock never really seemed interested in being a grounded, earthy adaptation. Its stylistic flare far surpasses that of Elementary, something that makes it more distinctive than the American incarnation. It has a significantly cinematic feel, clearly aided by the 90 minute running time, and, to its credit, has never lacked ambition. This is Elementary’s greatest drawback: the basic procedural nature of its episodes. While having to fulfil a 22-episode season necessitates it, Elementary gives itself over to its police show nature too much on occasion, sometimes just going through the motions of crime solving between character moments. Sherlock, on the other hand, has always leant into its wilder side, staging stories with (plenty of) plot holes, but with enough gusto to ensure that the dizzying entertainment factor covers them. It also does far more with its location than Elementary manages to (possibly a result of budget), conjuring a sprawling, vibrant vision of London right from its opening credits. By contrast, Elementary’s New York setting is often side-lined, making the city irrelevant to an extent. In a way this robs it of the chance to have the clarity of identity that Sherlock does , making it something that perhaps needs to be worked into the narrative at some point.

Sherlock is by far the more beautiful of the two adaptations, with its cinematography and locations giving it a sheen rarely seen outside the cinema. Elementary is left as the quieter sibling, with a real beating heart, relying on the audience caring deeply about its characters and the effects the crimes being solved have on viewers.Over its three seasons, it has grown, inversely to Sherlock and its faltering third season, always unafraid of tangling itself in the human issues of its characters. Holmes’ addiction has been gently pulled apart and examined; Joan’s search for fulfilment and the boundaries of how she defines her own independence have been gradually scrutinized; while leaving time for the supporting characters to develop their own insecurities, prides and relationships. Though the wonderful thing about the two 21st century Sherlocks is that neither extinguishes the other. They can exist side by side as utterly different and original interpretations of the same source material, something that one always hopes for when British works are adapted by the USA (like, say, The Office). I reckon as long as the creator has something new to say, more versions of Sherlock Holmes are not necessarily going to be a bad thing.

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