With the recent return of BBC’s Sherlock to American airwaves (or cablewaves?), I guess it’s a weird time to talk about what many (*cough* Anglophiles *cough*) consider “that other Sherlock Holmes show”, but I personally enjoy Elementary more. While I know people are fanatical about their Cumberbatch love, I’m here to tell you that Elementary is a great show in its own right and well worth watching.
In my mind there are two primary differences between the shows. The first is how much they stick to the source material. While both shows are modern updates of Conan Doyle’s characters, Sherlock sticks much more closely to the source material, each of its mini-episodes being based off of the events in Doyle’s short stories. One of the critiques I’ve heard of Elementary is that it’s a good show but it isn’t really about Sherlock Holmes, the characters just happen to take names from the series. I suppose to an extent that this is true. However, I think this has allowed the show’s writers and creators to really bring Sherlock Holmes into the modern age. While Sherlock certainly updates the stories in its consideration of technological advances and certain societal changes, it often feels like the old stories just with the bells and whistles of the modern era.
Elementary, on the other hand, has made some rather large changes which allow the show to truly inhabit contemporary times. The most obvious of these changes was making John Watson a woman (Joan Watson played by Lucy Liu), and not only that but also a woman of color. The show’s writers also work to put her on the same level as Holmes. Though she is not the same sort of super genius that he is, she does provide a lot of insight into the crimes that they solve and does a lot to help him with his personal struggles. Having a female lead who is just as smart and empowered as the male lead is a nice twist on the story and obviously very far from the source material. However, as I said, it feels very modern and puts the show more in touch with how things are now. As a whole, I feel that Elementary does a better job of tackling modern issues both with its characters and with its episode plots and crimes.
The second primary difference is the format. Sherlock is almost more of a mini-series than a TV show, at least by American standards. On the other side of that, Elementary is a procedural and follows the standard formatting audiences have become familiar with through shows like Law and Order or NCIS. I know that there are people who prefer the mini-series format to the episodic procedural format of American television series, which is well and good, but I have to point out a little bit of hypocrisy against anyone who claims that Sherlock is better than Elementary simply because the latter is a procedural. When writing the Holmes stories, Conan Doyle essentially developed the framework that TV shows use in the modern day procedural. Crime happens, investigators are brought in, investigators solve case, resolution and aftermath. This is how almost every Sherlock Holmes short story plays out. Oddly enough, Elementary is actually closer to its source material in this way.
In my opinion Elementary is one of the better shows currently on television. Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of Holmes is flawless, and the cast around him is incredible. The writers do a great job fleshing out the characters in the story, and they have some great plot twists (which I won’t ruin) that are such fun to watch. So if you haven’t seen Elementary, I suggest you check it out.
And while my intention isn’t really to start a “which is better” war between the two Holmes adaptations, these articles do a pretty good job of it for me! I should say that both have some major plot spoilers regarding the end of Season 1, but I think that the authors say when they’re getting into spoiler territory, if you want to avoid having any surprises ruined.
But, at the end of the day, whatever your preference or opinion, I see no reason not to enjoy both shows. I just think that Elementary is vastly underrated and often discounted by many.