“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”
Firstly, I would like to point out that I am a huge fan of both of these wonderful shows. I have been a Sherlock Holmes fan for quite sometime now. I’ve read all the books, watched every movie and television adaptation and I even have the Sherlock Holmes Master Detective Board Game – which is so nice to look at, I haven’t taken it out of the box (nothing to do with having no friends, trust me). For this article I shall be mostly focusing on the first three seasons of both of these shows, I feel it keeps it fair, just like Watson would have wanted, and there’s also the fact that I’m not quite up to date with either show beyond those seasons.
I should also issue a mild spoiler warning; whilst I will stay away from revealing major plot twists/moments, some do need alluded to in order to discuss both shows. Now, with that out of the way, let’s start.
Let’s begin with the main man himself, Sherlock Holmes. Picking a better Holmes from the two shows is not an easy task. Both actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller, do a terrific job of portraying such a complex and intriguing character. For a lot of fans, Benedict Cumberbatch (BC from now on) has become synonymous with Sherlock himself – and understandably so, as this Oscar nominated actor does hurl himself into the role with amazing results. That being said, JLM (keep up) also achieves a note perfect version of the modern day detective in Elementary. Whilst BC’s is a more grandiose and dramatic Holmes, JLM’s idiosyncratic and deliberately withheld take is very captivating and worthy of all the praise I can muster. Again, both are great performances, but for me, Jonny Lee Miller is ever so slightly the better Sherlock Holmes. Controversial, I know (like the man himself) but there is a tragic quality when he brings up his sobriety and the man he was before moving to New York. It is so utterly compelling and heartbreaking that, for me at least, gives him the edge over Benedict Cumberbatch.
Naturally, the next step is to consider Sherlock Holmes’ right hand man (or woman in the case of Elementary), John/Joan Watson. Almost as much of an iconic character as Sherlock, taking on the role is no easy task and, just as it was for Sherlock, both actors do a brilliant job. They are two very different takes on the character, however, and both have very different roles in their respective shows (it is also worth noting that it is somewhat refreshing to have a female take on John Watson). In Sherlock, John (a fantastic performance by Martin Freeman) is very close to the John Watson in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books. His role is that of loyal friend and dependant, and they both need and help each other in ways no one else could. In Elementary, Joan Watson (the best performance I’ve ever seen from Lucy Liu) is hired to be a sober companion for Sherlock and as well as being hugely important for him, she is in turn trained by Sherlock in the art of deduction. It is a new dynamic for the classic crime solving duo but one that works very well. When it comes to picking between them however, it isn’t difficult. Not only is Martin Freeman’s John Watson better than Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson, I would argue that it is the best one of all time. Even better than the almost perfect performance Nigel Bruce gave back in the classic Basil Rathbone black and white films. Now that is something I never thought would happen.
Other characters that appear in both shows are difficult to compare due to being written in hugely different ways. Sherlock’s brother Mycroft is a big part in both shows and actors Rhys Ifans and Mark Gatiss both showcase very strong performances. Mark Gatiss is possibly ever so slightly better overall, but Rhys Ifans’ Mycroft’s relationship with Joan Watson – whilst being tricky to wrap your head around at first – is one that offers new and exciting arcs for character development. And it is worthwhile just to see how difficult it is for Sherlock to deal with and how awkward he makes it. Personally my favourite Mycroft is Stephen Fry’s portrayal in the big budget Guy Ritchie movies. Inspector Lestrade and Captain Gregson, whilst both offering similar roles in how they help Sherlock, aren’t the same character and I certainly don’t see them as equals. When Inspector Lestrade did appear in Elementary, it was drastically different, and isn’t a big enough part to compare. The same goes with Colonel Sebastian Moran, portrayed through a very entertaining performance by Vinnie Jones in Elementary, but only appears in one episode of the British counterpart – being referred to merely as Lord Moran. The biggest change between the two shows however, is just how differently they tackled two of the biggest characters in the Sherlock Holmes universe: Irene Adler and Moriarty.
These two need a chapter to themselves. In Sherlock, Irene is introduced in a somewhat similar way to her first appearance in the book. It is very well done and her overall story arc is well written and executed strongly. Moriarty is a different level entirely – just as evil as he was in the books but with a jaw dropping, Bafta Award winning performance from the astounding Andrew Scott. Volatile, menacing, intense, confusing – I was genuinely amazed from the first moment I saw him in the show. A lot of credit has to go to the writers too as his ‘demise’ was scintillating and something I never saw coming. As for the American counterpart Elementary, things get tricky. Irene is only mentioned throughout the first season as it was her gruesome murder which led to Holmes spiralling into a heroin-induced hell which he barely escaped. Things happen with Moriarty and Irene and it’s hard to mention any part of it without revealing the biggest spoiler of all spoilers. It’s still brilliant and had great plot twists where I had to pause it and think about it for some amount of time. If I had to choose between them it has to be Sherlock, as Andrew Scott’s Moriarty is outstanding and the Irene Adler ‘I Am Sherlocked’ moment was really cool (her battle armour was memorable as well).
The location change, whilst drastically different, is nothing you ever really notice. Sherlock‘s London and Elementary‘s New York both feel natural to the Holmes in each city. I prefer New York though. Not for the show or anything, I just really liked Home Alone 2.
The final part worth comparing is the structure of the show as both have very little in common. Truth be told, episodically Elementary has more in common with House M.D (loosely based on Sherlock Holmes – seriously look it up, House/Holmes, Wilson/Watson, Irene is there, Moriarty too). With Sherlock you feel like you are watching a mini movie, one large ninety minute(ish) mystery, often loosely based on one of the original stories from the Conan Doyle books. Elementary on the other hand is twenty four episodes in a season and is almost always seeing a crime being committed – or the aftermath of one, and Holmes will solve it during the episode with personal moments happening throughout, culminating with a bigger moment at the end (House M.D did this too but instead showed someone getting injured, House solving it, followed by personal moment at the end). I have in the past called it CSI: Sherlock, which does make sense once you watch it and if you’re like me and don’t like CSI, surely you would watch a Sherlock based one.
Basically, they are two very different shows with the same subject matter. In terms of quality, Sherlock probably just edges it with their movie length three episode season, but that has a lot to do with the amount of time they can put towards each individual episode. Elementary is still well written and it offers ninety-eight episodes for its five seasons and some more to come before this season is finished. That’s a lot of Sherlock for your money.
So there we have it. My ideal Sherlock show; Johnny Lee Miller as Sherlock Holmes with Martin Freeman as John Watson. It will be set in New York, of course, with Andrew Scott as Moriarty and Irene sitting about in her ‘battle armour.’ It will feature a generous twenty-four-episode season and each episode a meaty 90 minutes long. And, maybe in one of those episodes, we can all sit down and play my Sherlock Holmes board game.