Tuesday, July 30, 2013

On why I prefer Elementary to Sherlock

Last night, I wrote a Facebook status that seems to have hit a nerve for quite a few people. That status? "Can we talk about how fabulous Elementary is? Because seriously. Sherlock ain't got nothing on this piece of amazingness."


It's an opinion that seems to be unpopular on the internet no matter where you go. Sherlock - by default of being a BBC production and arriving on the scene two years earlier - is seen as the superior show. In many cases, the person claiming that hasn't even watched Elementary, because "Ew, American version. Bound to be shit. Won't bother."

But in adopting such an attitude, people are depriving themselves of something wonderful. Personally, I prefer Elementary, due in large part to the writing on Sherlock, which I was unable to get past. So I totally understand having a preference for one or the other. I just wanted to put down on paper (pixels?!) some of the reasons WHY I feel the way I do, rather than just making a sweeping statement and not backing it up with evidence.

For a lot of people, it seems like their major problem is that Elementary strays from canon. It uses the names and natures of the characters, and puts them into new scenarios in a new location. While the essential core characters - Holmes, Watson, Mrs Hudson, Irene Adler and Moriarty - remain, the other recurring characters are new.

To me, however, this is where the show finds life. It's difficult to take a series of 120-ish year old short stories and dump them directly into the modern world. Sherlock itself proves that - while each episode may be based on a story taken from Doyle's canon, the plots are changed to fit the modern world. The Sherlock episode 'The Hounds of Baskerville', for example, features a drug created on a military base that leads people to hallucinate giant dogs. The original novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, in contrast, features a large dog that's been covered in phosphorus to make it look all creepy, and which is used to scare people to death. So while the basic concept may be canon, it does not automatically follow that the eventual episode is.
Hounds of Baskerville hallucination. Source

Elementary, by distancing itself from Doyle's canon stories, can explore new territory with ease. It can deal with subjects that simply weren't discussed in Doyle's time - rape, human trafficking, assassins for hire. Despite the American setting, not every case comes down to confronting the suspect at the point of a gun.

Where Elementary really shines, however, is the characters and their relationships. The show is nothing but character development from the get go. Sherlock - perhaps not surprisingly, given Steven Moffat as showrunner - features a limited number of characters who are female or people of colour. When it does, they tend to be stereotypes. Similarly, the relationship between Sherlock and Watson is guilty of constant queerbaiting - long, lingering looks between characters and jokes about how they're definitely absolutely not gay in any way, designed to play on the interests of fangirls when the showrunners have no intention of going anywhere near the development of a homosexual relationship.

Elementary is commonly criticised for the genderbent role of Joan Watson, with claims that "the Americans did this so they can introduce a sexual relationship easily!". If you watch the show, however, you'll see that nothing could be further from the truth. Sherlock and Joan start out in a client/practitioner relationship, and gradually move towards friendship. They are a literal broTP. Similarly, the genderbend allows for the introduction of a competent female character, who is Sherlock's equal in many ways.

I have yet to see a stereotype in Elementary. While Joan's mother is still the Asian mother who wants what is best for her daughter, she is far from the "you will do what I tell you" stereotype that is seen far too often. Detective Bell's race is never mentioned. Alfredo and Detective Bell's brother demonstrate that people are not what they first appear, that anyone can redeem themselves given time and motivation. And Ms. Hudson's biological gender is barely even noteworthy. Neither Sherlock or Joan are bothered. It is simply accepted without a second glance, without any "Oh God, what pronoun do we use?!" or "Wait, a BOYFRIEND?".
Detective Bell. Source

The acting in both shows is phenomenal, but what sells it for me is Jonny Lee Miller. He's brilliant as the recovering drug addict, pouring himself into his work. He brings emotion, wit, and depth to the role. Miller's Sherlock is able to admit that he's wrong, that others may know more than him. The mannerisms he brings - bouncing on his toes when mulling over a case, running his fingers over his thumb in a style reminiscent of violin fingering when putting forth a hypothesis, making decisions that seem logical to him but bizarre to other characters - take the character to the next level, creating a real person. Elementary's Sherlock is flawed, which allows the other characters to play a significant role, filling in key details that he - tunnel-visioned as Holmes tends to be throughout canon and all adaptations - can't see.

At the end of the day, though, it doesn't matter. Because the die hard Sherlock fans will never watch Elementary, deeming it a rip-off and not worthy of their BAFTA winning attention. And in doing so, they're depriving themselves of a treat. Because - despite appearances - the two shows are dramatically different and can't really be compared. Because despite the apparent war between the two shows - which are notoriously polarising - it is possible to watch and enjoy both.

Have you seen Elementary? Have you seen Sherlock? Which did you prefer and why?

K xx


  1. I know we already talked about this. I love Sherlock, maybe not so much for the writing but I enjoy the cinematography very much (if that is the correct term I am not entirely sure). Like you pointed out though, the queerbaiting is a thing I am not too happy with myself. Why not go there, why not transport these two characters into the 21st century and make something noteworthy off of it. My favourite episode is A Scandal in Belgravia mostly because of Irene Adler. Lara Pulver was a great casting choice and for the most part I enjoy her character very much and to have her being gay was the cherry on top. However she is not really gay because she falls for Sherlock. I understand that sexuality is more than a label but in this case it is just typical of Moffat I guess. Create something but not really follow through with it for whatever crazy reason there may be.

    As for Elementary, I have only watched the Pilot so far and I was pretty meh about it. I wanted to like it because of Lucy Lui and her being a female Watson *swoon* but somehow I didn't. It's been a while since I watched the pilot and maybe I should give it another try since I saw some interesting stuff on tumblr about this show. I'm just not in love with Elementary's Sherlock. I realise this is a small ground to judge this character on, after one episode.

    1. A Scandal in Belgravia was my favourite episode of Sherlock too, but even that had its issues on account of Moffat deciding to "fix" Irene's lesbianism by having her fall for Sherlock. Sigh.

      You should definitely keep watching Elementary. I know there's a ton of stuff out there to watch, and if something doesn't grab you after the first episode, it's hard to keep watching. But there's so much character development in Miller's Sherlock that it's worth it.

    2. I will give it another try once I'm through with Friday Night Lights and watched Firefly ;) There are other shows I needed a little push and liked them very much at the end. I will however not give Angel a try, lol.

      Yep, the "fixing" was not a good idea. *major eyeroll*

    3. I don't remember this episode by heart, but wasn't Irene supposed to be at least bisexual ? It seemed to me that Irene was the sort of character to not really care about one's gender.

      And as far as I understand it, in the books Sherlock and Watson live together which created all the ideas saying that they were gay, so Sherlock (the show) tends to nod at it, but that's just a nod. Kind of like Cersei telling Tyrion that she heard his wound was worse, and that he didn't have a nose anymore.

    4. I've not read all books yet but about 1/3 or so. In the beginning Sherlock and Watson live together but later Watson moves out and gets married. That's where I am at in the series as of today.

      Well there is one scene where Irene and Watson talk and John says that he is in fact not gay even if everyone thinks so and Irene says that she in fact is gay, but look at me, because I flirt with Sherlock blablabla. http://williesun.tumblr.com/post/42750152114/i-may-have-watched-this-scene-over-and-over

      Idk, maybe she is in fact bisexual but still, it's one of those things that is hinted but not followed through correctly in my opinion. Maybe I've watched this episode too many times. I think she doesn't care about one's gender when it comes to her business but when it's something serious she does care a bit more.

    5. That particular scene might just be Irene screwing with John though, because who doesn't enjoy seeing him squirm ? :)

      And I don't actually care that it wasn't followed through, I think it was dealt as "so she is what she is, no big deal", and I think that was tactfully done. But I understand how this may be taken as just ignored :)

  2. I watched both and definitely prefer Elementary. I love the depth of the relationships and the acting, as you said, is phenomenal. I love that there are enough elements from the book in the series to keep me engaged and that the settings are contemporary enough to do the same. I thought it was a great balance :)

    1. YES - I totally agree! I love that there are elements of the books scattered throughout without relying entirely on canon for storylines.

  3. If they set up a sexual/romantic relationship between Joan and Sherlock I will hurl something at the TV and stop watching Elementary forever!

    1. Ugh. I totally agree. I've read a few reviews saying that it's inevitable, but DEAR GOD I HOPE IT'S NOT BECAUSE I WILL SCREAM.

    2. I've actually stumbled upon an interview by one of the show creators or something, and they clearly stated that the Watson/Holmes relationship was supposed to be a bromance, where one just happens to be a girl.

      Actually one of the thing that made me consider watch the show :)

  4. I'm actually a huge Sherlock fan - though i'm not fond of "the blind banker" and "the hounds of baskerville", I just find all 4 others episodes so amazing -, so when I started watching Elementary a while ago, I was a bit... Dubious, shall we say.

    Now I've watched about 8 episodes of Elementary, and while I was nicely surprised, I'm still not very convinced. Not only in itself, but also by comparison with Sherlock. Here's my modest opinion on the matter:

    - I don't really care about the book canon or anything, I haven't even read the books, but it does seem to me that they've changed SO. MUCH. about it that it's basically just a show where the character happen to be named Sherlock, without much else to tie him to the original character, which sort of nullify the whole concept for me already.

    - The drug addict stuff hit me like classical US TV in its "let's put some hardcore stuff for shock value and because our character is so daaaark ! Like DRUGS !", but seems really useless. I actually loved how they changed that for nicotine patch in Sherlock. And the acting of JLM doesn't really do much for me, but that boils down to personnal preference I suppose :)

    - But most importantly, the stories look to me like just any other investigation show like Lie To Me, or The Mentalist, and doesn't really have their own *tone*. In Sherlock, they tend to be a bit more multi-layered in their resolution, and a bit more unusual (except for the 2 episodes I mentioned earlier, which is partly why I like them a bit less).

    A bit of reminder though: I've only watched about 8 episodes of Elementary, so it's totally possible that it gets better afterwards. And also I do sort of enjoy Elementary, I just don't really see it as "Sherlock Holmes-y".

    1. This is why you're my comment-bro because I also didn't like The Hound of Baskerville too much and The Blind Banker is also not one of my favourites.

      Also, yes, that whole drug thing threw me off with Elementary and was a big reason why I stopped watching after the pilot. That and JLM who I don't particularly care about. Even though the drug aspect may be closer to the books than Sherlock because as far as I understand Sherlock Holmes is pretty heavily into opiates but I don't know yet how deep this goes. It's hinted at in Sherlock but I don't remember the episode, probably season 1 though and then there is the nicotine thing which I actually enjoy seeing. The heavy drug problem of Elementary complete with sober coach is a bit too much for my taste though. Just my opinion.

    2. But there's also the era factor, weren't opiates and cocaine much more common in Sherlock's time ? According to wikipedia, cocaine was even legal. So just translating "cocaine" to "cocaine" doesn't really work.

      In Sherlock, I don't remember the episode, but there is indeed a scene where Lestrade start searching through Sherlock's appartment, and Watson gets all "you're looking for drugs ? Lol, yo dumb mon", and Sherlock looks at him all "STFU pleaz".

    3. That's the scene I was referring to. And you are right, with the opiate thing. What I read so far, it wasn't written in an OMG he's an addict kind of way like it would be today. Different times which is why Elementary-Sherlock's drug problem is not my kind of thing.

    4. Okay, so in the books, Sherlock Holmes uses cocaine to sharpen his mind. While it was legal at the time - and often used in medications - he's still a drug addict, to the point where Doctor Watson expresses concern about the effect it has on him, and eventually implies that he's persuaded Sherlock to give up. So having Sherlock as a recovering drug addict in Elementary was less about shock value and more about canon.

      More to the point, if you keep watching the series, there is a very valid reason for him to have become a drug addict. Unlike the books - or, indeed, Sherlock - where he uses drugs to sharpen his mind, in Elementary, he was using drugs to dull the pain of a particular event.

      The way I see it, if they'd REALLY wanted to make him dark and edgy, they wouldn't have made him a RECOVERING addict. They would have just made him an habitual user. (Also, he's a recovering HEROIN addict, not a cocaine addict, so they didn't just translate canon into the modern world)

    5. Furthermore (breaking comments into chunks to make them easier to read!), part of the reason why it's lacking the gorgeous cinematography of Sherlock is that they're filming 24 episodes, not 3. It's easy to take your time and line up every single shot precisely the way you want it when you've only got 3 episodes to film, and then six months to edit them. Sherlock is, essentially, three miniature movies a year. Elementary is a television show. Therefore, comparing the two visually is unfair to both.

    6. I know that you're right about the drug thing, it's just the way it's been played out give me "man with a daaaark past" vibe, which is a trope I don't really like. So it's probably more of a "I don't like that" than a "that's not good" thing :)

      And I agree that Elementary has much more "stress" when it comes to production because they have to create much more content, but in the end it does have an impact on my enjoyment.

    7. Another thought on the drug thing - I can't help but feel that if Moffat and Gatniss had made John addicted to prescription drugs as a result of his army injury, the fanboys would have been all "Ooooh, acceptable modern twist!!", whereas making Sherlock a recovering drug addict is seen as an American attempt at being dark and edgy.

    8. I honestly don't know about that, it seems to me it's kind of a "chicken or the egg" thing, are people more lenient towards Moffat/Sherlock because he's creating/it has great stories, or do they find it great because they're more lenient with stuff they wouldn't let other people get away with ? :)

      My main concern with Elementary though is that it really feels like an "investigation of the week" show, whereas Sherlock as a much more original structure.

      This being said, I think I can understand why people wouldn't find Sherlock appealing, as well as I can understand why people like Elementary (and as I said, I do enjoy Elementary as a show, I just don't really see the "Sherlock Holmes" of it).

  5. My problems with Sherlock are long and rather impossible to put down on a screen, mostly because I've only watched the show once, and I have no desire to watch it again to pick apart and articulate every thing in detail. Basically, I really struggled to get through every episode, and only finished each one because my husband was watching, and I got curious about how they would end. There were actually points (partuciularly during The Hounds of the Baskervilles) where I stopped watching all together for five or ten minutes, because I got so bored.
    So I'm in Kirsti's camp, I certainly enjoy Elementary over Sherlock. I actually looked forward to putting on the next episode, and easily got through four or five episodes in an evening, and struggled not to make it six in favour of going to sleep.
    I appreciate that Joan is Sherlocks equal, and the police aren't inept. I love Mrs Watson, and the complete lack of exploitation of a trans woman. Even though most of the show is a reasonably by the book crime procedural, the character interaction is the focus, rather than the mystery. The investigations are used as a way to grow and develop the personalities of everyone involved.
    Are there downer episodes that aren't as good? Of course. But do they constitute forty percent (seems like everyone doesn't like a couple of expisodes of Sherlock as much) of the show? No.
    Are there still problematic moments? Of course. No show is perfect.
    Is it a huge departure from the original material it's derived from? Yes. But then everyone who's read an AU fanfic knows that derivative works don't have to follow canon perfectly, and that they're often far more compelling and interesting when you change things up a bit (or a lot!).
    I don't really understand why everyone seems to think Sherlock's drug addiction was done for shock value. I think it was more a way to get him to the US (out of the environment that was so toxic, causing him to slip into a bad place), and a nod to the Doyle's original writing of the character as a regular narcotics user. Even if they were legal in the nineteenth century, it doesn't mean it's not still part of the character, and Doyle's Sherlock chose cocaine because he believed it to make his mind sharper, more efficient when solving cases. Makes sense to me that they wouldn't bother to change that for the sake of using a 'modern drug'.
    So yeah, I feel like this is almost as long as the original post, but I'll continue to watch Elementary, but am unlikely to watch season 3 of Sherlock. Among other things, I really just can't handle any more of Moffat's 'ooh look at me aren't I clever see this thing I did that's soooo clever' Moffateyness that's meant I've given up on DW as well.

    1. "Is it a huge departure from the original material it's derived from? Yes. But then everyone who's read an AU fanfic knows that derivative works don't have to follow canon perfectly, and that they're often far more compelling and interesting when you change things up a bit (or a lot!)."


  6. I think the next person who thinks that JLM's Sherlock being "edgy" because he's a former drug user is going on my "to be slapped with fish" list. I think you can do a comparative study of American entertainment with characters who have an addiction problem and see that Elementary does it wonderfully: They express that drug use is rarely (if ever) helpful, they have scenes where they constantly explain the uses of having support networks to recovering addicts, they discuss everything that other entertainment neglects. They even keep him on the straight and narrow; he doesn't relapse, and he expresses his vulnerabilities.

    I rarely, if ever, see addicts or recovering addicts painted in a positive light: Showing the dark aspects that require strength and having support networks to deal with it. To me, that is the most perfect thing about them taking the "drug abuse" canon.

    The "nicotine patch" nonsense in Sherlock was just appalling. In that, they make reference to a stimulant being required to think quickly and accurately. That strikes a nerve with me, and it does nothing to make things better or provide a useful social commentary. That's two separate beliefs in two shows, and one of them is far more positive than the other.

    1. The nicotine patch thing drove me absolutely nuts.

      Also, I think part of the reason why I like JLM so much as the recovering addict character is that we've already seen him as the rock bottom heroin addict in Trainspotting.


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