let's compare: sherlock, elementary, and canon

I just watched the first three episodes of Elementary, and I recently finished the second season of Sherlock, so obviously I feel the need to think about them in concert.

First, and most obviously, the casting. Sherlock went the uber-traditional route - Watson is a former military doctor, Sherlock lacks any understanding of social cues. Watson treats Holmes with a certain familiar affection, viewing him as someone he needs to care for and keep from danger; to the extent that Holmes can feel anything approaching love for another person, it is for Watson, with some sentimentality spilled over to Mrs. Hudson (and the lovelorn lab scientist, but that's neither here nor there). Both are British, both are handsome. 

Whereas Elementary went what I will call the American casting route, also reflected in the Robert Downey Jr. franchise - Sherlock Holmes is an unrepentant asshole. He's presented less as a possibly autistic person and more as someone who has made decisions to make them the person they are (bootstraps! huzzah!). He's had some sort of romantic mishap of epic proportions that caused him to turn to drugs (a point both more and less accurate than the British version, where Sherlock is merely a cigarette smoker trying to quit - Holmes is an active opium and heroin user throughout many of the books, with Watson working overtime to try and break him of the habits, but he also never has any romantic relationship, except maybe Watson). The Watson in this case is Lucy Liu, as you've probably read about in someone's angry rant about how they can't believe a WOMAN is playing WATSON, that's just BLASPHEMY, and it's NONSENSE, except for the part that Liu's Watson is far more loyal to canon than the show's Holmes. She's a former surgeon with guilt associated with her practice of medicine (the book Watson from his military service, Liu's from the death of a patient on her operating table, apparently from malpractice). She's explicitly trying to keep Holmes off of drugs, and her sass is both entertaining to watch and quite loyal to the banter-based relationship in the books.

I think both avenues have their merits - going the traditional route gives a certain sense of comfort to the literary nerds who undoubtedly have entire chat boards dedicated to non-canonical items in the episodes (and goodness knows that if I were the sort of person to get into chat boards, I would probably be doing that), but the American casting (dammit, I should've gone with English and Western so it would be like riding saddles) gives a bit more freedom to play with the basic concept without having to stick so closely to the established concepts. Neither Watson gives too much credit to their Holmes, always recognizing that Holmes needs an abnormal amount of care, despite being a genius. If I were to pick a Holmes, though, I'm team Cumberbatch all the way. The American Holmes (who, ironically? is British) is a bit too involved with other humans, especially since he was introduced post-coitus, more or less. That is just ridiculous.

Next point: the stories! Something I've loved about Sherlock is that they use the stories provided in the canon and simply modify them for the modern setting. For instance, in the Hound of the Baskervilles episode, there is some crazy genetic testing stuff happening that nicely dovetails with the concept of a hellhound roaming the moors (and there's also a brilliant bit with an opportunistic tour guide that I really loved). In a way, again, there is a lot of freedom to explore within the bounds of a known story (as we've seen with the recent explosion of fairy tale remakes), and I think that Sherlock has really used the canon to great advantage WITH ONE CRITICAL EXCEPTION that I will get to at the end because it's not really related to the compare-and-contrast.

Elementary has decided to go the American true-crime-procedural route, down to the expected reveals at certain times. I suppose that this, too, allows a certain freedom of experimentation within a set frame, just that the frame is markedly different. The cases don't really bear a resemblance to the ones in the books, as far as I remember - the random serial killer is not a trope (as it were) that really shows up in the Sherlock Holmes canon (feel free to correct me if I'm wrong (but A Study in Scarlet involves methodically killing a certain group of people for a certain purpose, not choosing unrelated victims for the sole purpose of murder, so that doesn't count)). The cases feel more like Law and Order than Sherlock Holmes, and Holmes ends up feeling more like Stabler than a mildly sociopathic genius/probable lunatic. I guess you could argue that the serial killer, the Balloon Man, from the third episode could turn into a recurring "problem" and therefore could count as an early introduction of a Moriarty type. Though the name isn't even kind of close, and so I'm inclined to think that he's not it. If they even go the Moriarty route. Which is debatable. 

ANYWAY. My third thought is the memorialization of the cases. In the books, Watson publishes pamphlets or something about Holmes, talking about their adventures in a "romantic" style, derided by Holmes as ridiculous. I think it's an important element to consider when making a follow-on product, because Watson is the narrator of the books and, to put it simply, the books wouldn't exist without Watson writing them.

This is handled beautifully in Sherlock by Watson's keeping a blog of their exploits. It's in the parlance of our times, it logically follows as what would be the pamphlet equivalent (had this show been staged in the '90s, I would hope that Watson would create a Sherlock 'zine using the library's Xerox), and also, it allows for some really fantastic typography on the screen. Sherlock is interesting because it utilizes modern technology in a logical way - text messages, blogs, even a bit about smartphones - and it also doesn't pretend that the way people text is to immediately read the text out loud upon receiving it. There is an excellent use of subtitles. It's delightful. You should see it. The only thing that beats it (that I've seen) is Night Watch, which has legitimately amazing subtitles that actually add to the understanding and concept of the film.

Sorry, I couldn't resist throwing in the trailer here. It doesn't even show the subtitles. I don't know. I'm sorry. This got nonsensical really quickly. But like, imagine with how cool this is, where like, when a character yells "NO NO NO" each NO is bigger than the last and seems to match the volume of the yell? Whatever it's rad, go watch that movie. I can't find it streaming. If you really trust me and love weird beautiful horror films, here's the first two films of the trilogy (of which the third does not yet exist) --> DAY WATCH/NIGHT WATCH (DVD) [2 DISCS] (Google Affiliate Ad)


In Elementary, the only way I can see that they could say that any of this is getting written down is that either they haven't brought it up yet, which, okay, I guess, or that Watson is reporting each case to Holmes's father, which just seems ridiculous to me. You can't tell a random civilian that much about a police investigation, even if he is related to a detective. So in this regard, the win definitely goes to Sherlock, by about a mile. 

Now, not as a comparison, because Elementary has only had three episodes, and MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for Sherlock and/or the books: 

I was really pissed at the way they killed Holmes in the show. 

If you're not familiar with the history of the books, what happened is actually kind of hilarious. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, after writing about a billion Sherlock Holmes stories, was really sick of it. He wanted to move on to other projects, but his adoring public wouldn't leave him the hell alone. So what does he do? 

He sends Holmes off of a cliff. 

Seriously. He didn't intend to bring him back, either. It was supposed to be a quick, dramatic ending to one of literature's greatest detectives.

Except for that the adoring public wouldn't let Sherlock die. This was the birth of modern fanfiction, and of people calling things "canon" in literature to mean "in the proper understanding of the thing," as in, this is not fan-fiction, this is for realsies. Other people started writing and publishing Sherlock Holmes stories in their own pamphlets, not unlike John Watson. But it wasn't what Doyle wanted to happen to Holmes! This was his character, and all these people were trying to throw in their weird, possibly ridiculous cases (and if you've ever read fanfics, you can probably guess what proportion of them were ridiculous and useless and canon-breaking). So, finally, a few years after he'd killed him off, Doyle had to write it all off as another clever ruse by Sherlock Holmes, Clever Thing-Doer Extraordinaire. 

I can see how we're to the same point in Sherlock - the whole point of season 2 was that Holmes was becoming too notorious and recognizable to be as effective as he had been previously, and when he comes back to life in the books, he gives this as his reasoning to Watson - that all, including Watson, had to believe he was dead in order for him to be able to take down the criminal geniuses of the European continent. That's fine, I can see that, they made a point of making it obvious that he was becoming more of a household face. 

The issue I take with it is that, in the books, Holmes fell, but nobody saw him land anywhere - he fell, rather dramatically, into some mist - and there was no body to be found. In Sherlock, he jumps off of a building in broad daylight and quite obviously is bleeding  and dented on the street and looking quite dead. This would be a conspiracy that would require probably multiple people knowing about it, because it's just not as easy to be certifiably dead now as it was in the late 1800s, and if there's anything Sherlock Holmes doesn't do, it's involve multiple people in anything. Especially if he can't involve Watson (which clearly he can't, as they are publicly viewed as probably being in love and Watson is, in all iterations, not a good enough actor to pull off that kind of scam, probably because he has a soul). 

Alright, that's my exceedingly long commentary on those two shows, mushed together. I didn't even throw in any of the non-obvious Sherlock Holmes shows, like (definitely) House or (arguably) Psych or Lie to Me, or even Endgame. Putting House in there would make it a very tight contest for best representation of the Holmes/Watson (House/Wilson) relationship, as on House, he does an awfully good job of sabotaging a lot of Wilson's relationships, which Holmes definitely does to a certain extent - OKAY I NEED TO STOP TALKING ABOUT THIS, JESUS CHRIST.

I should've been an English major, and I should've written about contemporary models of Holmes/Watson dynamics. I would've gotten like a 4.5 GPA instead of *mumbles incoherently*. 

i should end all of my posts with this.