Style and Substance: a Look at Elementary and Sherlock

One of the more interesting discussions I've been having with Lion lately is on the subject of the TV show Sherlock and the similar American show Elementary.

Sherlock, if you're not aware, is a BBC show that sets the character of Sherlock Holmes in modern times with modern technology. It's a very fun show, created by Doctor Who's showrunner Steven Moffat and the League of Gentlemen's Mark Gatiss. It's very witty, snappy, and stylized. Unfortunately, it's also very flawed.
Now generally speaking, I try not to compare works of art— even those within the same genre— but unfortunately comparisons here are almost necessary. Last TV season, CBS premiered the superficially similar Elementary. The reason comparisons are valid for once here is that the shows both beg to reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's source work of Sherlock Holmes. It's not the hollow House style comparisons you so often see where they simply make the lead a grumpy genius and the sidekick a a still intelligent but humanizingly relate-able fellow (Not a knock on House, which I liked. Just pointing out the difference between making a Sherlock Holmes show and a show that took a vague premise from Holmes and displaced it). Elementary and Sherlock both aim for the exact same thing: being a modern TV adaptation of one of literature's most fascinating detectives.

So why is Sherlock so flawed and how does Elementary avoid those issues? And does this mean one or the other is poor television? Of course the answer is far from simple. First, let's acknowledge what Sherlock does right: it's very very fun. The art direction is nothing short of excellent, which means it's enjoyable simply from an aesthetics standpoint. The acting (including Benedict Cumberbatch and the very underrated Martin Freeman) is top notch. The dialogue almost reaches Sorkin levels in its wittiness. This makes for a fantastic viewing experience. I'm certainly not writing this to demean the work that goes into the show, because it certainly pays off. Unfortunately, the quality of the show begins and ends there.

There's no depth to Sherlock. The characters are mostly two-note at best. Sherlock himself is a fantastic example of this. Rather than the rounded literary character written in the 1800s, he's a lovable fake-sociopath. His characterization is written with all the deftness of most 1980s antiheroes. In short, he's an overrefined Punisher. He holds the common man in disdain because he's so smart, but gosh-darn it, he's adorable and witty! That makes it okay!

Between the editing and musical cues, and Cumberbatch's fantastic acting, the show simply apologizes for him being an arrogant jackass to "regular" human beings. This is unfortunately the result of the writing and directing by Moffat and Gatiss. They justify it with the adorable wit and by surrounding Holmes with condescending and incompetent assholes like Sgt. Sally Donovan. This is where Elementary gets it right.

Elementary, opposite the mysterious likability of Sherlock's Sherlock, makes no apologies for the lead character. Rather than simply saying "Isn't he delightful!", the writers and showrunners for Elementary make Holmes entirely unrepentant. He's a jackass, and sure— he sees results, but there are real consequences for his bizarre behavior. He violates modern ethical codes, but there's nothing pretty or fun about it. It's harsh and hard and very unsettling. Most importantly, it's effective.

In terms of depth of character, every single character of note is at some point drawn far more roundly than any of the Sherlock character, but most importantly is the title character. His attitude is never simply a given, but neither is it explained away with "DRUGS" or "MEAN DADDY". Rather, it's explored as part of the greater theme of the show, much like Watson's platonic love for him (on the subject of Watson, I could write another 700 words on how the two shows handle women in totally different ways: Elementary, very well, Sherlock, very poorly).

None of this, however, is to say you shouldn't watch or enjoy Sherlock or that everyone should love Elementary. Sherlock is a fantastically made show, and a very fun one. It's easy enough to enjoy— and I certainly do on a lazy night. But easy to watch and stylistic are rarely the same as high quality. The entire subject would never be worth bring up if it weren't for the fact that I can hardly say the word "Elementary" before I'm reprimanded by fans of the BBC show telling me how much better Sherlock is without having seen a half-second of CBS's detective drama. It's similar to the difference between Hawaii Five-O and the Shield. Sure, both are cop shows, but one's a hard drama that can be uncomfortable to watch for the vast majority of viewers and the other is a lighthearted fare that rarely (if ever) goes to places that can be uncomfortable for viewers. (This isn't to say Sherlock is equal in quality to CBS's pacific crime procedural, just making a very simple analogy.)

At the end of the day, Sherlock is a perfectly fine show that is very well made. It simply isn't very deep. There's nothing wrong with this— it's far better than most of the tripe on TV, not to mention more entertaining. But that doesn't mean you should immediately write off Elementary, which is unfortunately ignored by the large viewing public due to the links between the two.

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