Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sherlock's Holmes vs Elementary's Sherlock

This might be a shocking admission, but I haven't read any of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Well, I have a vague memory of reading one - something about copying an encyclopaedia - when I was maybe twelve, but it's obviously not stuck with me.

As a result, my only real exposure to the Sherlock Holmes character is through the Guy Ritchie films, the Steven Moffatt TV series and the US drama - in that order1. I liked them all in different ways, but I'm not going to bother with the blockbusters in this post as A. I've only seen them once each, and B. their setting - in the original Victorian time period - means comparisons are kind of difficult with the two set in this millennium.

A lot of people I saw posting about it online seemed horrified by the idea of Lucy Liu playing Watson. In a Sherlock Holmes series set in New York, at that. But I think Elementary's not only a solid show, in a lot of ways I think it's a better show than the Moffatt adaptation.

Pitchforks at the ready.

To begin with, I was comparing Elementary unfavourably to the BBC show, but having rewatched Sherlock recently I found the comparisons coming down on the opposite side of the fence than I'd expected.

This is where my lack of Arthur Conan Doyle experience comes in: I don't know which of the Sherlocks is closer to the original character as described. But on the plus side, that means I don't care. I'm not hung up on authenticity, so I get to just enjoy what I'm watching.

For the sake of clarity (and conciseness), I'm going to refer to the respective Sherlocks (and Watsons) by their actors' names, rather than saying "Sherlock's Holmes" and "Elementary's Sherlock" all the time.

I definitely prefer Johnny Lee Miller's nervous energy, his disappointment with others when they don't see what he does, and his excitement and eagerness when he gets to explain it. Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is dismissive and doesn't seem to realise that what he has is special. He looks down on people, they just don't get it because they're stupid - he's not doing anything special. Everybody else is just substandard.

There's no doubt that Cumberbatch is a fascinating character to watch, and his deductions are allowed to be more complex because of the in-picture overlays showing his thoughts or mobile phone screen. But he's totally alien to the viewer, which seems odd because I always got the impression that we're supposed to identify with Sherlock as viewers more than we are Watson.

I also feel that Miller's emotional moments - when he gets them - are more believable. His Sherlock is not as consistent and cold a manipulator of other people as Cumberbatch, which tends to make me doubt his version's honesty. Is he actually vulnerable, or just screwing with someone as an experiment?

But while I might prefer Sherlock in Elementary, the Moffatt show is probably better. The cases and puzzles aren't as predictable in Sherlock; while the US procedural format makes it fairly easy to predict whodunnit quite early, the reluctance of Cumberbatch's Sherlock to share what he's noted as quickly as Miller's version does means you're more often in Watson's position - seeing, but not observing - than the US version. Elementary seems to want its audience to identify with (and in some cases, out-deduce) Sherlock.

By bringing the audience closer to Sherlock, it also makes it easier to understand why Lucy Liu's Watson becomes attached to her Sherlock than the frankly baffling notion that Martin Freeman would put up with the constant abuse, lawbreaking and condescention of his - and Cumberbatch doesn't even have the exuse that he's a "proper" drug addict like Miller. It's worth remembering, though, that Elementary also has the advantage of a much longer season than Sherlock, which allows it to show more of the personal time between cases.

Of course Elementary isn't without its flaws; like most US crime dramas it's very formulaic and predictable as a result; it also seemed to take a few episodes before they decided what kind of a person they wanted Sherlock to be. Not to mention what his relationship was going to be with Lucy Liu's Watson; there are a few early scenes hinting none too subtly at a potential romantic encounter further down the line, which - thankfully - seems to have been forgotten about. Nevermind the assault to canon, it's nice to see that the writers don't feel the urge to make the female lead fall for the damaged, brilliant male lead. They don't have the hugely entertaining verbal sparring of Moffat's version though; Elementary certainly isn't as witty or clever as Sherlock.

For a lot of Elementary's time so far, I found myself trying not to think of it as a Sherlock Holmes story, primarily to avoid the inevitable (I thought) negative comparison to the Moffatt series. But I think I might actually prefer Elementary - if not as a Holmes adaptation, certainly as entertainment.

It's also got a much better theme tune than it really has any right to.

1 I'm not sure if I should have included Basil the Great Mouse Detective, Without a Clue or Young Sherlock Holmes in this list. Fairly sure they're all non-canonical.


Hugh K. David said...

Much as I love discussing popular culture with you Paul, a lot of the differences you're discussing in the two approaches are inherently bound up with the original character as written, and actually answer a lot of the things you're querying. While Holmes has passed into public iconography, enabling a wider discussion of these shows as crime shows, which you make some very good points about, as an example your question about whether we, the audience, are meant to identify with Holmes over Watson, is easily answered by the original creation (we aren't - Doyle's creation is, by the standards of the day, at best an eccentric ahead of his time, at worst a social heretic). I agree with you that the two approaches are simply different, neither right nor wrong, but the quality of the Moffat & Gatiss mysteries coupled with the use of the on-screen visualisation is directly lifted from the books, finding modern ways to freshen twists, bringing elements of the stories that were the multi-media elements of their day: telegrams, letters, newspaper articles, etc. are now texts, emails, TV reports, etc.

I do wish I'd seen Danny Boyle's stage version of Frankenstein, in which Cumberbatch and Miller alternated the Doctor and the Monster on alternate nights. It would be interesting to compare those performances against these takes on another great British icon.

And I'll watch Lucy Liu in almost anything (actually, I have done - I saw Ecks vs.Sever!), so it's nice to see her get another meaty TV role after the excellent SOUTHLAND.

demondownload said...

Yeah, I do think I've probably missed a lot in both shows (especially Moffatt's) having not read any Holmes, but surely most of the viewing audience in both cases are going to be in my position rather than being experts in Doyle's writings.

I've got to take them on their own merits, in the absence (so far) of any of the "real" Holmes' adventures, and so far as that goes I've got to admit I've enjoyed Elementary much more than I thought I would, and probably more than I did Sherlock.

Still rather excited to see what happens with the third series though, if they ever get around to it.