Detective stories are about solving mysteries. This should not be a contentious statement, but the success of shows like House MD and Monk inspired a dozen replications of the subgenre: an investigator with unusual skills works with a police department or equivalent to solve crimes. Often the conceit relies on a conflict between the investigator’s skill set and the ‘rules’ leading to complex working relationships. The special investigator has to go outside the law. And after The Mentalist, they also had to be sexy and cool.
The special investigator genre has been around forever, popularised and arguably invented by, yes, the Sherlock Holmes serials. Gregory House, Sherlock Holmes. James Wilson, John Watson. Countless programs have done their best to religitate and adapt Sherlock Holmes, but few are excellent.
I’m going to be comparing and contrasting BBC’s Sherlock and Elementary for the most part, so to avoid confusion I’ll refer to the two Sherlocks by their actors’ surnames, Cumberbatch and Miller respectively. And Doyle’s fictional construct as Sherlock.
At their core, detective stories present a puzzle, and we follow the solving of that puzzle. In Elementary you always have a lot of the information in front of you, if only you’d noticed. In BBC’s Sherlock, Cumberbatch has access to information you never could in almost every case. Sometimes this works well in BBC’s Sherlock, where Cumberbatch will provide an absolutely bonkers explanation for a crime that turns out to be wrong, and in reality the events that took place were straightforward and easy to understand, our detective just came to the wrong conclusion. This happens once or twice, the rest of the time Cumberbatch swans about with so much more information than both the other characters in the world and us, the audience. Us, along with the supporting cast of BBC’s Sherlock, have no choice but to sit back and be wowed by his excellence.
Not only does this focus our attention on Sherlock rather than the mysteries at hand, but renders the supporting cast idiots by proximity (aside from four hyper intelligent special boys in big coats, but that's another article entirely). In never allowing the characters to participate in genuinely helping Cumberbatch, they just kind of futz about in the background while Cumberbatch does all the mind-palace and fact-inventing. On paper this fine, it’s trying to be a different kind of story. This is Moffat’s fantasy of super smart men doing super smart things, not a detective story. But this has the intentional consequence of making you, the audience, feel stupid for even trying to solve the crimes in the… crime show.
BBC’s Sherlock is a snide, snarky universe of uber geniuses and shallow simpletons. When the cool FX gimmicks and amazing transitions wear thin, interactions between characters feel inauthentic because jokes are so overt and aggressive they often clash with the tone of the story. Or comedic moments are created for the audience’s enjoyment but make very little material sense for the characters to behave in the way they do. During routine laboratory work, Sherlock is viscous to his colleague Molly. She often bears the weight of his epic smart guy burns as he uses his deductive reasoning to bully her for no reason. The show positions this as a flaw Cumberbatch will need to overcome: he will surely get his just deserts for this behavior.
Turns out no. Not really. Rather, as the show goes on, it becomes clear the show thinks Cumberbatch was right to act the way he did because he’s too important and smart to bother with manners. In this way, BBC’s Sherlock more accurately captures the callousness of certain types of intelligence but fails to properly imagine the universe around that. Yes, this kind of Sherlock would be isolated, but his brilliance presents in such comically shitty behaviours that characters rarely take it seriously themselves, shrugging and offering the timeworn explanation: Sherlocks will be Sherlocks. So we’re left with a cast of idiots circling a character who’s needless cruelty is not taken seriously, and we’re told not to take the cast of idiots seriously because they should just stay out of Cumberbatch’s way. And the mysteries don’t matter, to the point where the writers actively make fun of fans who watched the detective story and speculated about the mysteries in it.
While I understand BBC’s Sherlock has an appeal (just watch a supercut of all the dope scene transitions on Youtube for a slice), it is a mean universe to spend time in. It makes fun of normal people, centres a brilliant genius sexy man as the aspiration of human ingenuity and imagines supervillains as being self-aware lunatics who are all also gay. Thanks Steven.
Despite a far smaller budget, I think Elementary is a far better story for it’s restraint and willingness to take risks. Specifically, it’s commitment to taking its own fiction seriously.
Miller’s Sherlock is a recovering drug addict, and Joan (a gender bent John Watson) has a genuine, challenging care for his well being. The first season explores their growth into a stable partnership, but in overcoming their differences, it’s clear by the end of the season why these two characters are colleagues, and maybe, one day, will be friends.
The same is true for the auxiliary cast: this is not a Moffat world where everyone is trying to get one up on each other. Here, the police are very much on the same page, trying to catch killers. Miller does not have free reign. He can bend the rules, yes, but he remains accountable and wants to be because he believes in the system he utilises to put criminals away and help people. When laws are broken, it is because the alternatives are unacceptable in the context of the moment. In BBC’s Sherlock, Cumberbatch gets so stumped by another uber genius he straight up executes someone. And then we have to continue to empathise with him after.
Miller’s Sherlock struggles to hurt others. On occasion, when pushed, he indulges a dark violence, but it takes a lot to drive him to those depths. And when he arrives there, Joan or Kitty are there to pull him from the precipice.
Perhaps the most important philosophical difference between the two interpretations is the why of Sherlock’s work. In BBC’s Sherlock, Cumberbatch solves problems to avoid boredom. In Elementary, while Miller’s incarnation superficially shares this characteristic, he remains a consulting detective to help people. Yes, the work aids his recovery. Yes, it allows him to use his intelligence. But the show takes pains to illustrate Miller’s efforts to become more empathic. To help those around him. Because he recognises vulnerability for the strength it is, not a flaw to be overcome.
In fact, this Sherlock even admits he doesn’t know things. That’s right, Steven, you can write intelligent people who are self-aware enough to seek outside counsel. And we get to experience Miller navigating the competing factors in his life: he needs to exist beyond the rules to get the job done, but needs to adhere to those rules to maintain the network required for success. So he learns to be better. More human. When Miller is difficult or too intense or fails a social queue, it feels like a genuine slip of the facade instead of a performance or intelligence flex. And when he is mean, he is ruthless. His anger produces barbed, hyper-focused insults that seek out concealed flaws and rip them to the surface, nicking arteries as he extracts an ounce of flesh.
Playing his foil, Lucy Liu’s Joan Watson strikes the careful balance between audience surrogate and defined, motivated character in her own right. Her past is rich, textured. Her motivations divorced from Miller’s. As the story goes on, Joan becomes a capable investigator of her own. Watching a normal person absorb Miller’s methods and worldview and become smarter invites us to do the same. Joan is never admonished for trying to solve crimes. Because that would betray an elemental misunderstanding of the source material.
In Doyle’s serials, when Sherlock is overly dismissive or arrogant, it bites him in the arse. His dismissal of Irene Adler because of her gender causes him to lose. His lack of preparation for Moriarty gets him dead.
Elementary takes a similar approach. We’re not supposed to sit back and be wowed at how smart Sherlock is, instead, we’re taken for the ride, encouraged to become investigators ourselves, to connect clues. You’re a participant. Engaged in thinking through the puzzles. Hell, the show even teaches you things that are useful in real life.
In the pilot episode, Miller is investigating a murder where they are certain a woman was killed in her home but there’s no body. Miller notices a slight decline in the floor of the master bedroom, and deduces there might be a heavy panic room nearby. We notice him noticing, he walks kind of funny back and forth a few times.
He’s right—it’s mostly a hunch, but this is actually a real thing that really happens with heavy safe rooms. This is a straightforward deduction that we, the audience, had a chance to work out before our hero. As he notices the slant in the floor, the camera focuses on the moveable wall panels. We’ve also been told multiple times about the victim’s wealth and that she was hiding an expensive secret. So it’s no stretch to think she may have a safe room to hide said secret, and if you’re familiar with how these are installed, you’ll know they are commonly built behind master bedrooms because this is where the residents are most likely to be during a breakin, so the panic room needs to be accessible.
While the occasional episode relies on Miller pulling off a wildly improbable deduction, for the most part the answers are in front of us the whole time. And this allows the best experience in a detective story: beating the investigators to the solve. This feeling is bloody incredible and cannot be understated. It’s even elating when you can’t crack it, because when Miller and Joan lay out the facts in a straightforward way, you’re actually impressed. They had the same information as you but thought about the puzzle in a way you hadn’t considered.
Not only are the crimes well presented, but Miller and Joan never luck into a solution or solve it off camera. In fact, the majority of the show is focused on their investigative process, with dozens of great scenes set in The Brownstone as our heroes work through evidence and craft theories. The few times Miller makes a breakthrough off screen, we get a clear, concise explanation of how he arrived at his conclusion, and it’s evident the reason we didn’t watch is that it would’ve been boring to observe Miller comb through cell phone tower records or recreate blood splatters for hours on end.
In a twist of genius, Miller does his off-screen solving by staying up through the night, which very often creates problems as his fatigue catches up to him. There is a cost to the progress Miller makes. And allows Miller to explain his deductions to Joan or Kitty in the morning.
While some of Elementary’s changes to the source material are difficult to unpack (Moriarty is a discussion for another day), the show takes frequent risks. They don’t always pay off, but they weave together a fictitious New York that feels real because the characters there treat it seriously. As the story goes on, the writers occasionally fumble the overarching plotlines. Mycroft’s season two arc feels poorly placed by its conclusion. But for every swing and miss, Elementary hits ten home runs.
It’s difficult to stress how the superficial similarity of the shows conceals a fundamental philosophical difference in their construction. BBC’s Sherlock is a flashy, expensive saunter where Moffat trots about a handful of well-paid actors to show how cool Cumberbatch is while calling you stupid for caring about or even trying to solve the crimes in the crime story.
Elementary is an earnest, inviting reimaging of Doyle’s work, drawing the best aspects of the original serials into a modern setting. Even if the CBS detective show was old hat before Elementary’s pilot even aired, the story’s exploration of addiction, empathy and intelligence feels fresh, new and always engaging.