Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Show-Down: Sherlock vs. Elementary

I almost didn't watch Sherlock. I'd seen it pop up a few times on Netflix as a recommendation, but I also had the misfortune to watch The Young Indiana Jones—at least the first 30 seconds of the pilot. It was so terrible, I was afraid when I first saw Sherlock pop up that it would be something like that. (I'm not kidding; on my mobile device, the thumbnail makes Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman look like a couple of teens or twentysomethings—neither of which fits with Doyle's Sherlock at all, in any context) Moreover, I had seen and very much resented the version of Sherlock played by Robert Downey, Jr. Don't get me wrong, he's a great actor and I can imagine no one better in the role of Tony Stark... Just not Sherlock. (For those who liked the movies, I understand that the inspiration for them came not from Doyle but from a series of graphic novels themselves inspired by the stories; I do not condemn this in any way, I only adhere to my preference for the originals)
I was worried that this new series was going to try and build off of it, making Sherlock to be a crystal-snuffing, potentially-homosexual brainiac with a bumbling roommate. (Harsh, but there you have it; I was genuinely worried... My apologies to the BBC for assuming they would commit such an atrocity against one of their own, to reduce Sherlock and Watson to such a degree)

Then one day, May 2011 I believe, my sister mentions to me, "Have you seen that modernized Sherlock series on Netflix? It's really good!"

My first reaction (In my head): "Now, wait a minute! I thought I was the Sherlock nerd here! I've read the Complete Unabridged Adventures of Sherlock Holmes cover-to-cover four or five times, nearly to the point of memorization for some of them! You've read it, what, barely even once when it wasn't assigned for school? And you're the one telling me that you really like a Sherlock series?"
We owned two DVD sets of Sherlock Holmes TV series, one with Leslie Howard in the leading role (which you couldn't see or hear, of course, because it was black-and-white and very poor quality), and another with Christopher Lee (Which was awesome; I love it when actors can bring their own expertise to a character without it being a recently-acquired skill; Lee's own experience as a detective with Scotland Yard came out beautifully in his portrayal of Sherlock). I have only seen those once, and no one on my family would even dream of wanting to watch them at all.
Now here was my sister, telling ME about a "cool new Sherlock series."
I had to watch it.

By the intertitle card at, oh, probably five minutes into the episode, I was irrevocably hooked. Sherlock exceeded my wildest dreams on several counts:
1) Even though it was a modern setting, it followed the plots of the stories on which the episodes were based to the point where I could predict the outcome because I knew the story;
2) The relationship between Watson and Holmes is teased about for one episode only, then regarded for what it is for the remainder of the show, and never brought up again (so far);
3) The nicotine patches were, in my opinion, a master stroke! In the original stories, I only found one mention of Sherlock's "coke habit" in one story, just a few sentences in hundreds of pages. In that same spirit, the writers of Sherlock devoted one scene of one episode to Sherlock on withdrawal, hunting for his drug with all the maturity of a little boy who's mislaid his Halloween candy—but Sherlock never finds it, because Watson has done the responsible thing and gotten rid of it (Well done, John!)
4) The montage over the several cases that the series never covers but have contributed to Sherlock's fame was equally entertaining. I do love a good bit of wordplay, which they managed to involve with every single title mentioned!
5) Quite frankly, I never saw Moriarty coming, and I really like how he seems to be a bit younger than Sherlock, to give the effect that Moriarty could have in fact outlived Sherlock, even if they went their separate ways and didn't try to kill each other again. (As opposed to being a devious older man, as in the movies)

Which brings me to the CBS show Elementary.

The greenlighting of the series was announced, if I remember correctly, not long after the second season of Sherlock—and about the time when I discovered the cancellation of another CBS show that I really liked, that ended on an UNRESOLVED CLIFFHANGER after only one season! At first I was like "No way!"
By now I had realized that my fear about Sherlock being portrayed as a druggie and his relationship with Watson becoming something more romantic than it ever was in the stories stemmed from the Americanization of Sherlock Holmes, our own perception of the character, based on our culture, as opposed to the British culture. I read the phrase "recovering drug addict" and learned that Watson would be a woman, and promptly launched a preemptive personal boycott. No one was going to change Sherlock Holmes for me! I just knew it was going to be a copycat series, and I was very disappointed that CBS would choose to discontinue an original, exciting concept in favor of starting a re-hash.
I was perfectly happy with "my" Sherlock...
Then the Hobbit came out and delayed Season 3 of the show for another year. What's an avid fan to do?
I decided to give it one shot. If I watched the pilot and it fulfilled my low expectations of it, I could continue the boycott with impunity.
By the end of the episode, I still was not sure if I particularly liked a female Watson, or the kooky, esoteric Sherlock, as portrayed by Johnny Lee Miller. As it turns out he was more of a "rehabilitated ex-druggie" than a druggie, but he was definitely more antisocial than Benedict's suave, clever "higher-functioning sociopath."

A comparison between the two might very well fall along the lines of "How to Win Arguments And Influence People" (Cumberbatch) and "How to Lose Respect and Alienate People" (Miller).
Benedict's Sherlock was clean-cut, suave, and almost transcendent of society. Miller's Sherlock is scruffy, unorthodox, and treats society with more of an irreverence than actual disdain.

As for the story arc/episodes themselves, I would go so far as to consider the BBC version entirely canonical. With the exception of some character names and the use of modern locations and technology, one could easily believe that Doyle would have, if he were a 21st-century writer, written his mysteries in exactly this way. Doyle's Sherlock certainly would have used his smartphone for all sorts of information and communication at his fingertips, etc.
CBS, on the other hand, makes no pretense of going "canonical." From calling the show "Elementary," to merely using the names Sherlock Holmes and Watson, not the actual characters themselves and certainly not fashioning any sort of patterned mystery "as the book does it," the American show does an interesting thing. It takes an icon of detective literature and reconstitutes it into an inventive but in all other ways typical crime drama series. If the two main characters were the eccentric Floyd MacDowell and his spunky "sober companion" Jessica Hartman, the series would not even have to worry about copyright issues. The mysteries and investigations are unique, the context is entirely original—all that's left is a few of the better-known names from the original book.
I love a good crime/cop drama. I've watched and enjoyed plenty. I was on the fence about Elementary because I was still trying to picture it in the context of Sherlock Holmes. Once I stopped thinking about it as Sherlock, though, and started regarding it as a brilliant criminologist and his female housemate (who really seems to be Watson and Mrs. Hudson rolled into one) and not a romantic interest—suddenly the whole show got a little bit better. Not completely—the crime scenes are generally disturbing, and the Elementary Sherlock is candid (just barely pushing the envelope) about the topic of sex, but only when it is pertinent to his observations. (which is not always)

Verdict: I feel I can recommend both series equally—provided they are regarded as completely different species. Sherlock is a cat, and Elementary is more like a dog; they both have four legs, fur, and make great pets, but they have vastly different characteristics and serve very different purposes. But both series are well-done, well-acted (the writing on Elementary could use a little help sometimes, unlike Sherlock), and very fun to watch.