A Tale of Two Sherlocks

Feb 15, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Deborah Harter Williams, Mysteryrat's Maze, TV

by Deborah Harter Williams

There are a few spoilers for Elementary in this article if you are not up to date on the show.

The BBC’s Sherlock and CBS’s Elementary provide two wonderfully divergent flavors of Sherlock Holmes, Watson, Moriarty et al. You might call them light and dark.

The BBC venture (2010) sprung from a long held dream of creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffatt to do their own adaptation of a 21st century Sherlock. They stick to material from the original stories and then take wild and playful liberties, adding extraordinary plot twists that leave you scratching your head. As the New York Times observed “This Sherlock is…lissome, spirited and briskly energetic; inventive and humorously far-fetched, but always in the spirit of the original work.”

As befits the Dr. Who background of the Sherlock writers, the scenes often highlight futuristic architecture and Google-“glassish” displays. Benedict Cumberbatch struts around with greatcoat flying behind him, a sexy portrayal that has him pegged as “the thinking woman’s crumpet.”

Meanwhile, CBS’ Elementary (2012) was challenged from the start to do something different. The producers at the BBC let it be known that they would be watching for similarities and to avoid any creativity pollution, the Elementary producers weren’t to watch the competition.

The Holmes of Elementary lives in New York, with the grittiness of the atmosphere reflecting the darkness of this portrayal, a damaged soul fresh from rehab. Creator Rob Doherty was “drawn to the idea of a broken Sherlock Holmes…he’s a guy who has gone through a personal trauma and is now trying very hard to get back to where he was. “He’s quite raw and his struggles are on the surface,” says Jonny Lee Miller, whose tattoos add to the persona of a darker Holmes.

One big difference is the logistics of the two shows. The BBC releases three per season, each 90 minutes and shown without commercials. “I’ve also got to do Doctor Who,” says Moffat, “that’s the day job…if we made Sherlock the ordinary way and did a run of six or 12, it would have been over by now. Martin (The Hobbit, Fargo) and Benedict (The Hobbit, The Imitation Game and The Penguins of Madagascar) would never have been able to find the time. I do think that sharpening the appetite and having shorter runs of more shows is a better way.”

Doherty is a series television veteran (ER, Star Trek: Voyager, Dark Angel, Tru Calling and Medium). He has the pressure of delivering 10 shows a year, the need to break the acts for commercials and to get the procedural right in an hour time slot. “Once we have a case that we think is interesting and appropriate to the show, we’ll sketch that out. We then look to see what would be going on in the characters’ lives, at that point in the season, and what we’ve set up in a previous episode that could have a pay-off.”

Both shows focus on relationships–most acutely between Holmes and Watson, but Elementary has the time to show Holmes’ recovery and slowly growing awareness of his need for other people as he finds his footing with Capt. Gregson, Detective Marcus Bell, his AA sponsor and his new “sponsoree.”

The Women

Elementary took the bold step of casting Lucy Liu as a female Watson. She is also a bit dark, dealing with the guilt of a patient who died on her operating table. As Holmes’ former sober companion she still watches over him, but as his assistant/partner she is evolving into her new skills and confidence. Doherty originally envisioned the relationship as a “bromance,” but where one of the “bros” was a woman. While some viewers may anticipate sexual tension, it’s not part of the design.

The Irene Adler of Sherlock is a wily dominatrix who intellectually challenges the detective, but Elementary’s Adler is Holmes’ lost love and part of his existential despair. When it turns out that she is not really dead, he is floored, but then the producers upped the ante by revealing that she is in reality Jaimie Moriarty, his nemesis.

The other women on Sherlock get a chance at the game as well. Mary Watson is no longer a homebody domestic partner, but one that urges her husband into cases and joins in, as befits someone with her secret past as a spy. Molly Hooper, from the morgue, becomes a friend, sometime assistant and accomplice. How useful to have a woman with lab equipment and dead bodies on hand! And Mrs. Hudson (“I’m not your housekeeper”) turns out to have been married to a drug trafficker, so she knows her way around a cartel.

Whether you like your Sherlock Holmes light or dark, the two shows provide a banquet of deduction, deception and character development.

Bon appetit!

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.

Deborah Harter Williams works as a mystery scout, seeking novels that could be made into television. She blogs at Clue Sisters and was formerly a mystery bookstore owner.


  1. Insightful review of both Holmes incarnations. I particularly like your drawing attention to the differences between what BBC’s Gatiss and NBC’s Doherty are doing in terms of agenda, time line and constraints.
    I like both shows very much. SHERLOCK has more razzle-dazzle, shooting three episodes every couple of years or thereabouts therefore needing to shock and awe viewers with video acrobatics and extrapolation of the canon’s plot elements. ELEMENTARY has a more personal approach dealing with Holmes and his drug addiction and casting Watson as his sober companion initially. Both have interesting ways of expanding female characters. I loved the idea of Mary as an assassin and Watson as female. Taking it a step farther—ELEMENTARY’s Moriarty is a woman, an evil twin of Holmes, and is his soul mate. Wow.
    We have lots of chatter around the water cooler ensues every Monday morning with the lovers and haters of one or the other or both of the series—love it.

  2. I watch both shows. I got a kick out of seeing both Sherlocks together in a very short scene on a PBS special about the British theatre.


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