Sherlock Holmes has never been unfashionable.
Like a good tuxedo, the classic detective has always been en vogue. Sure, it may seem like he’s recently come back into fashion but the truth is that wily and abrasive detective has never left the limelight of pop culture.
It’s important to keep this in mind as we discuss two current TV shows staring the same man: Sherlock Holmes. We have, on the western side of the Atlantic, Elementary; the CBS drama about a crime-solving recovering drug-addict. And on the eastern side of the Atlantic, we have Sherlock; the BBC drama about a crime-solving misanthrope.
Both series are set in modern day; New York for Elementary and London for Sherlock. Both series have taken the iconic character of Holmes and reimagined him as he might exist now, using the original stories as a basis. In many ways, however, that’s the end of the similarities. As a result, with the singular constant – the modernization of the Sherlock Holmes character – we get a fascinating case study of the differences between television shows (especially across national borders), and how shows can take the exact same source material and produce such different works.
First, however, in order to understand the divergence of these shows, it would do to take a step back and look at Sherlock Holmes and his presence in pop culture.
The brainchild of physician Author Conan Doyle, the official catalog of Sherlock Holmes stories – almost all narrated by his friend and colleague John Watson – appeared between 1887 and 1927 in the span of four novels and over fifty short stories, most of which were serially published.
The stories would almost immediately become commercial and critical successes, on both sides of the Atlantic and the world abroad. In 1899, several Holmes stories would be amalgamated into the stage play ‘The Strange Case of Ms. Faulkner’, which would contribute the curved calabash pipe to the canonical visual of Sherlock Holmes. A long string of silent movies would follow (including a 1922 entrant that would star John Barrymore) until 1939 when Basil Rathbone would first don the deerstalker cap and Inverness cape to become the quintessential Sherlock Holmes.
Rathbone’s portrayal of Holmes would become the default depiction of the character for almost half a century. In addition to typecasting Rathbone, it also typecast Holmes the character. Not merely the deerstalker cap and the calabash pipe, the way Holmes moved and talked, the way he addressed those around him, his entire physical and personal characterization was defined by Rathbone. Rathbone’s portrayal would become so iconic, it would almost eclipse the character itself; a character that has been portrayed more times than almost any other in cinema history (with only Count Dracula and Superman being more often visually spoofed or referenced). All future versions of the character would largely be drawn from Rathbone’s performance, even more so than the original source material. From the serious and committed (such as Jeremy Brett in the BBC’s Sherlock Holmes of the 1980s) to the comedic (Disney’s Great Mouse Detective and the underrated Tom & Jerry meet Sherlock Holmes), Rathbone’s version of Sherlock Holmes would BE Sherlock Holmes.
After almost sixty-five years, Sherlock Holmes would be partially re-imagined in the medical drama House MD. While the show was not conceived of as a Sherlock Holmes retelling – and the character of Dr Gregory House was not initially conceived as a reimagined Holmes – the stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle were a noted influence on both the tone of the show and on House’ character itself as they grew and developed. Creative forces Bryan Singer and David Shore both spoke of consulting the stories of Sherlock Holmes as the show went into production, and numerous references to the stories and characters are made both within the show itself and in the production.
The depiction of a Holmes-like character in Dr Gregory House, from the FOX series House, would help to loosen some of the yolk the image of Holmes had become saddled with. Once audiences accepted a Rathbone-free version of Holmes, Guy Richie was free to direct 2009’s Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law as Holmes and Watson. Set just prior to the turn of the Twentieth Century, this new take on Holmes showed a far more edgy and colorful character. Gone were the calabash pipe and deerstalker hat, replaced with a Bohemian who dabbled in underground boxing and substance abuse (references to which were present in the original stories, but were oft-overlooked in the screen depictions of the character). The success of this film would help to further revitalize the character and liberate him to enter the modern entertainment, free of the baggage of previous depictions.
In 2010, the BBC aired Sherlock, a modern telling of the original stories and novels, setting Holmes in modern-day London. Co-created by Dr Who showrunner Steven Moffat, Sherlock would cast Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman was Dr John Watson. The two meet and work as consulting detectives to Metropolitan Police Service. Of the nine episodes released thus far (three ninety-minute episodes per series), the stories are largely recreations and re-imaginings of the original stories by Doyle (A Study in Scarlett became a Study in Pink, A Scandal in Bohemia became a Scandal in Belgravia, The Final Problem became the Reichenbach Fall, etc).
The show was an immediate critical and commercial success, with the second series ordered by the BBC before the first series had even completed its on-air run. The show would help to cement the career of the already established Martin Freeman and would launch Benedict Cumberbatch’s career into the stratosphere.
Meanwhile, across the pond, a similar show was in development for CBS. Beginning in 2012, Elementary would conceive of Sherlock Holmes in the modern world, but set the stories in New York City. Casting Jonny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes and Lucy Liu as Watson, the show developed a very different dynamic between the two. While still consulting detectives (this time for the New York Police Department), Lucy Liu’s Watson is Sherlock Holmes’ sobriety companion, the result of Sherlock having completed a drug rehab program just prior to the show’s pilot.
Before Elementary aired, criticisms of its similarity to Sherlock were levied. Both show’s creators and staff were very protective of their respective projects, but were also very allowing of the possibilities the Sherlock Holmes’ franchise offered. Sherlock producer Sue Vertrue would say ‘they would be watching the finished pilot [of Elementary] very closely’, while Elementary creator Robert Dohtery praised the brilliance of Sherlock but promised a different take with his show.
At first glance, the two shows seem almost uncomfortably similar: a modernized account of a literary detective a hundred-plus years removed from his original tales. However, these two shows are intrinsically distinct and they offer not just a fascinating discussion of the diversity of portrayals a character such as Sherlock Holmes offers, but also a unique perspective into the different attitudes and strengths of the televised medium in their respective countries.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes in the BBC drama is cast as an independently wealthy consultant to the Metropolitan Police Service in London. He is a pseudo-ex-smoker who consults on a whim with both private clients and the Met. He meets John Watson while trying to find a roommate, and the two forge an almost immediate friendship. He has an antagonistic (if civil) relationship with his brother Mycroft, and we meet his parents in the series three finale “His Last Vow”.
Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a self-described ‘high-functioning sociopath’, one that embraces his own extreme idiosyncrasies as being part of a spectrum with whom all live. Depicted at times as being socially inept (evidenced by his ‘confusion’ over his duties and responsibilities as best man at John Watson’s wedding in series three), he comes across as absent-minded at times and often deliberately dismissive of those around him.
Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes for CBS’ Elementary isn’t much more socially acceptable. Living off a trust fund of indeterminate magnitude from his oft-mentioned but never seen father, he donates his time to the NYPD as a consulting detective (only occasionally taking private cases). His status as a former drug addict (specifically heroin) is a major theme of the show, connecting many otherwise disparate elements with that one narrative. Most of his relationships in the show are informed by, if not the direct result of, his prior drug addiction. Indeed, much of the show itself (that’s not directly related to this week’s case) is connected to Holmes’ continued struggles with addiction.
Miller’s Holmes is notably ‘broken’. At first it seems to be the result of his addiction, but we learn over the course of the first season it is also due to the apparent loss of the ‘love of his life’ Irene Adler (more on this later). He isn’t the ‘high-functioning sociopath’ of the BBC’s Sherlock, but instead a highly dedicated pursuer of the mind. Most every episode includes at least some reference to Sherlock’s ‘mind training’, feats of mental prowess that are the result of intellectual conditioning rather than the result of (automatic) natural aptitude. For example, when we first meet Holmes in the show, we are introduced to him by his watching of seven TV shows as he tries to not just follow all of them but memorize what’s happening on each of them.
The single biggest difference between the two performances of Holmes is that BBC’s Sherlock gives the viewer a Holmes that is, while CBS’ Elementary gives us a Holmes that has become. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is the result of who he was born as, and the life he has led to the time the show begins. He has a natural aptitude towards forensics and logic and has cultivated them through his crime solving and consulting work. Miller’s Holmes is no less gifted, but the show puts a greater emphasis on the work he has applied and continues to apply to become the phenomenon. There is also an emphasis of the damage his life has done to him. Not limited to his estranged relationship with his brother Mycroft or his drug addiction, Holmes has embraced his solitary life, devoid of romance and friendship, as a side effect of his mental conditioning and line of work. It is a common theme in many of his conversations with Dr Watson.
Speaking of Watson, it is with this character where the two shows diverge most obviously. Martin Freeman’s Dr John Watson on the BBC’s Sherlock is a fairly faithful reimagining of the character from previous depictions. He is somewhat on the unassuming side physically (which is actually a divergence from the source material, as Watson was at times described as ‘strongly built’ and with a ‘thick neck’). He is a decorated veteran in an Afghanistan warfront (which is oddly topical as John Watson from the original stories was as well). Freeman’s Watson comes to Sherlock Holmes in an attempt to find a flat mate, and after being staggered by Holmes’ mind and behaviors, becomes a bit of a biographer of him. He begins a blog, writing about living with Holmes as well as detailing their investigations. The assumption that the two are lovers is made more than a few times, something that still doesn’t come to an end even when Watson gets engaged.
Freeman’s Watson goes through a personal transformation over the course of Sherlock, going from a military veteran with PTSD to an assistant to a partner to a friend, and even mentor. Much of the show’s internal narrative is moved forward by Watson and not Holmes (who is often fixated on solving the case in the most quirky manner possible). The two characters share the straight man/fall man responsibility, with Watson’s social awareness and manners and simple awareness of the lives of others often contributing to the case-solving as much as his medical knowledge.
In Elementary, however, Joan Watson is played by Lucy Liu. A Chinese-American surgeon, she lost a patient that left her questioning her medical profession, which lead her to embrace a new career as a sobriety companion (a sort of live-in AA sponsor). Holmes’ father hires her to help Holmes in his post-rehab life, and this is how she comes to be his partner. Through the first season, she informally assists him simply by virtue that she must remain with him more or less at all times. As the first season comes to a close, however, they go into business as she formally becomes his protégé and finally partner.
Joan Watson doesn’t have the military background, but her work as a sobriety companion helps to facilitate her better understanding of the human psyche. In many ways, she brings a double expertise to the table – one medical and one empathic. Unlike Freeman’s Watson, we do not see her going through the radical transformation, though her transition from sobriety companion to investigator isn’t glossed over. She remains the same Joan Watson more or less throughout the first few seasons, often playing the fall man to Holmes’ antics.
Watson is not Sherlock Holmes’ only aide. Greg Lestrade is portrayed subtly but expertly by Rupert Graves in BBC’s Sherlock. He is the detective-inspector with the London Met. He is Holmes’ biggest advocate outside of Watson, but still grows very impatient with the consulting detective’s eccentricities. Lestrade is shown to be an extremely capable investigator in his own right, independent of Holmes.
In CBS’ Elementary, there are actually two Lestrades. Aiden Quinn plays Captain Thomas Gregson of the NYPD (reminiscent of Tobias Gregson, a professional rival to Lestrade though a minor character mentioned only in a handful of Doyle’s original stories). Gregson is far more lenient of Holmes than Sherlock’s Lestrade, but does keep him in line. The key distinction between the two is that, in keeping with Elementary’s them of rebirth, Gregson is one of the very few people who know Holmes to be a recovering addict. Knowing and keeping this secret puts Gregson in special regard with Holmes. Lestrade in Sherlock, on the other hand, has little insight into Holmes’ personal life or the workings of his mind.
It is worth mentioning that Elementary does ALSO have Lestrade. Holmes worked in London prior to the opening of the show, during which he worked with Gareth Lestrade (played by Sean Pertwee). Keeping with the original stories, Holmes allowed Lestrade to take credit for his investigations. Differing from the original stories, however, Lestrade became addicted to the fame that came with being so highly regarded an investigator. When Holmes left London, this left Lestrade’s career to come crashing down. His appearances in Elementary are in the wake of that personal and professional collapse.
The ‘Napoleon of Crime’, Professor Moriarty is Holmes’ most famous opponent, somewhat ironically as he only appears in one story, and is only referenced in another. Still, their famous meeting in The Final Problem all but created the arch-nemesis construct in literature and entertainment.
In BBC’s Sherlock, ‘Jim’ Moriarty is not an older and distinguished professor, but a volatile young man who fancies himself a ‘consulting criminal’. Vividly played by Andrew Scott, he is a madman with a dangerous and enigmatic obsession with Holmes. This version of Moriarty is unpredictable as he seems to have little interest in gain of power or wealth (in any form). His motivations are all but unguessable, all the way to his apparent death. Little explanation is given for his fixation on Holmes, or any of his crimes, except save for the possible justification of his own amusement.
CBS’ Elementary, on the other hand, vastly develops Moriarty. Gender-swapping the character as it did with Watson, Natalie Dormer plays Moriarty and Irene Adler as they are one in the same. Irene Adler was an artificial persona Moriarty created to manipulate Holmes prior to his fall into substance abuse. Her seeming death is what would drive Holmes to addiction, and then his exodus to New York City. Irene Adler will reappear in his life, but will eventually be unmasked as Moriarty. She’ll be captured and arrested, only to reappear again when her biological daughter is captured by some of her own former henchmen.
Dormer’s Moriarty is enigmatic but clearly a businesswoman. She is motivated by power and crimes are orchestrated to further her pursuit of it. Her decisions are methodical and measured. This is opposite Scott’s Moriarty who is thoroughly unpredictable. If Dormer’s Moriarty is Keyser Souze from the Usual Suspects, then Scott’s Moriarty is the Joker from the Dark Knight.
The single most defining distinction between Sherlock and Elementary may not be the setting (London vs New York) or in Watson (male vs female), but actually in the cases. The cases in Sherlock are, by and large, reworkings or reimaginings or at the very least inspired by the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories. As mentioned previously, many episodes appropriate the title and even the overall premise from the original stories (Hounds of Baskerville, Scandal in Belgravia, Study in Pink, etc). Likewise, though the series of Sherlock are shorter in episodes, each episode covers a longer period of time. Many episodes include a montage series of events during which we see Holmes and Watson (usually just Holmes) bypassing cases or solving them in an instant. Weeks and even months are hand-waved away in a quick sequence.
By contrast, episodes of Elementary are thus far almost entirely original. Very few elements of the actual cases from the original stories have been appropriated. While specific characters have been introduced (Lestrade, Moriarty, Ms Hudson), the actual stories and events surrounding them are almost completely different. The nature of the crimes are usually grander on Sherlock (terrorism, political blackmail, etc) with Elementary being focused almost exclusively on murder. Likewise, while an episode of Sherlock can encompass weeks on an investigation, most episodes of Elementary take place within a few days, often the first forty-hours of the crime in question.
A fundamental difference between the two shows, one that might not be obvious but is unquestionably fundamental, is the nature of their broadcast. Sherlock is a mini-series, broadcast in three-episode stints, with almost two years between each block of 90-to-100-minute episodes, totaling to approximately fourteen hours of narrative thus far. Elementary, on the other hand, is broadcast weekly for twenty-four 45-minute episodes, totaling to approximately thirty-six hours of narrative to date. Sherlock has no commercial breaks; Elementary has five.
Right off the bat, this will heavily influence the nature of the narrative. Elementary, being an American-style crime drama, has to deal with story twists just prior to each commercial break. It also has almost half the time available to devote to the individual case-of-the-week. Sherlock, on the other hand, has less time overall with which to grow the characters and the narrative. There’s less space for personal growth, which may be one reason for why Cumberbatch’s Holmes sees personal growth pretty much solely in relation to Watson, while Miller’s Holmes sees growth with regards to himself as well as everyone around him.
Sherlock and Elementary provide a brilliant example of how the same idea (setting Sherlock Holmes in the modern era) can be executed so very differently. These two shows are contemporaries, but not competitors. They do not impinge on one another but complement one another. The similarities between them help to magnify their distinctiveness, and illustrate the cultural differences between American and British television.
Robert V Aldrich is a writer based out of Asheville North Carolina, and St Andrews Scotland, specializing in novels and serials for otaku, gamers, comic book geeks, and others who overthink entertainment as much as he does. His most recent novel, Rhest for the Wicked, is available now and more of his writings can be found at TeachTheSky.com.