The Battle for Baker Street…

How I came to love one Sherlock Holmes series more than the other…

I’ll admit, when I first heard that CBS were developing an American version of the Sherlock Holmes story, I rolled my eyes along with everyone else. I thought this was nothing more than an attempt to cash in on the success of BBC’s Sherlock. At the time (2012) I was hooked on the second series, and I had little room in my heart for more than one modern Sherlock Holmes series at a time. To me, the casting of Lucy Liu as Watson seemed like an excuse to cast a big name, and even the attempt to set it in the USA seemed almost cultural appropriation.

Most of the time, if a UK show got any success the Americans didn’t bother exporting it, they just remade it. When I heard about Elementary, I sighed. There was no chance a 24-episode procedural written by Americans could capture the spirit of Sherlock Holmes, England’s most beloved fictional character. However, having watched all four series of Sherlock, I find my opinion towards the BBC show has cooled dramatically, and having watched the first season of Elementary, I’m shocked to find that I prefer the American version.

Let me explain. There are several major problems with Sherlock, which started out as minor annoyances, but have grown into huge flaws which I believe damage the show irreparably. When I watched the first season of Elementary, I was delighted to find that it avoids many of the issues that plague Sherlock, and so I’ll go through five of them now with you:


  1. The Pacing…

Let’s start with the basics; Elementary is a better paced show. One thing that always frustrated me about Sherlock was the abysmal series length. I understand that making something short of better quality is preferable to a deluge of mediocrity, but Sherlock goes too far in my opinion. Three episodes is not enough for a series. Sure, the episodes are almost feature length, but when watching a series, we treat it like television, not a film, so the length often hurts the overall pacing, as in the second episode of the fourth series of Sherlock. Far too much time is dedicated to visualising the drug addled mind of the main character, and this drags after ten minutes. The series often feels like it’s padding the run-time with weddings and awkward humour, rather than plot or character development. Elementary keeps to forty minutes and tells a coherent standalone mystery with satisfying character development that builds over the season, such as Watson’s budding detective skills. This feels a lot smoother and easier to consume than hour-and-a-half testaments to how amazing Sherlock is.

  1. Character…

Another bug-bear of Sherlock that has got worse is the way the show handles character development. The first series was effective at establishing that Watson is Sherlock’s emotional centre and that Sherlock was an arrogant and distant intellect with heart somewhere near the right place. Fast forward four series and Watson has no personality beyond being angry at Sherlock or admiring him, and the man himself has changed from a clever man making simple deductions to an all-powerful genius with no weaknesses whatsoever. Might as well change his name to Mary.

What Elementary achieves with its characters is more rewarding. We start the first season with a recovering drug addict trying to keep his sobriety counsellor at arm’s length, and he naturally develops into a warm friend with genuine respect for his partner, who has become a fledgling detective, rather than an ex-surgeon who hates her job. Elementary takes the time to slowly hand us information about these people and why they do what they do, rather than throw everything at us in the first series, having nothing left by the fourth.

  1. Diversity…

Many people, myself included have found a troubling trend in the way Stephen Moffat writes female characters. They are always some form of sexy femme-fatale who are (despite pretentions of independence) obsessed with the male protagonist. Irene Adler is a dominatrix who undresses to distract Sherlock. The line “the woman who beat you” rather than being a clever woman who outsmarts him is twisted into the woman who hit you a bunch with a whip. Very modern. Honestly, the biggest problem I have is that the show tries to act as if it’s all cool with diversity, but it can’t help but draw attention to it.

Elementary endured quite a lot of controversy over the decision to cast Watson as a woman. However, the way the character is written takes elements of the book version of Watson, and adds something new. Watson earns Holmes’ respect and her compassion and determination make her a staunch friend. There is a range of skin tones on display and even a transgender Mrs Hudson. None of these things are focused on or put in a spotlight. It is breathtakingly refreshing to watch a show where diversity is treated as normal.

  1. Priorities…

For a detective show that aims to give us a mystery drama, Sherlock is very uninterested in telling a mystery story. Past the first two episodes, most of Holmes and Watson’s cases are given to us in montages, or exposition, while the focus is on how all of this affects Sherlock. In the premiere to series three, we are never even given a proper explanation of how Sherlock survives his apparent death, after two years of speculation. In fact, Watson specifically interrupts Sherlock’s explanation to tell him that he doesn’t care how he did it. Good for you John, but could you humour for a moment the viewers you were supposed to be entertaining?

Robert Doherty, creator of Elementary keeps true to the original stand-alone nature of the Holmes stories by using the procedural format, arguably the successor to that style of narrative. As such each episode may contain more clues to a larger mystery at some point, but the focus of the episode is always on giving us a satisfying mystery to solve. The details of the case that Sherlock picks out are there to be noticed and so viewers are not cheated, unlike when Sherlock (from Sherlock) comes up with information not privy to the viewer.

  1. Sherlock and Watson…

The heart of the story is always the relationship between Holmes and his sidekick. Even in the books, it’s never been an entirely equal friendship, and in most adaptations, Watson has been portrayed as rather an idiot. A comic foil to highlight Holmes’ genius, and in Sherlock it is no different. Apart from one or two isolated moments, Watson makes no impact on the plot. He is there for exactly two things; to react to Sherlock and to be rescued. Sherlock constantly belittles and insults him, and only starts to outwardly reciprocate their friendship at all three series in. it’s tired and cliché and more than a little boring. Elementary does things a little different. Apart from the obvious gender swap, Watson starts as a sober companion, so it is literally her job to care about Holmes, which leads very naturally to her coming to befriend him on her own terms. Whereas is Sherlock, Holmes ropes John into a flat-share on a whim, Joan enters Sherlock’s world with her own agenda. In short, the Holmes and Watson of Sherlock are like Pinky and the Brain, whereas Sherlock and Joan remind me of Mulder and Scully.

There are many reasons I’ve grown to dislike Sherlock, and if you still think it’s a good show after this, then that’s fine! I’m not trying to ruin a show you like, but if anything I’ve said about Elementary sounds refreshing, please give it a watch, it’s worth your time.

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