NB: Some pretty minor spoilers here. I kept the really good stuff out. But if you care about a super minor character in Elementary, you’ve been warned.
My first exposure to the Sherlock Holmes tales came when I I was thirteen or fourteen years old. My Nana was a Reader’s Digest subscriber and would regularly purchase the big anthology collections they sold under the World’s Best Reading imprint. You know the ones, the big hardcovers with the embossed covers? I loved those things – so many stories in one convenient package! If memory serves, theSherlock Holmes volume came into my hands during sometime away from school- either a sick day or summer vacation – and so I read every single story in rather rapid succession.
So ol’ Sherlock and I have a history together, so I was excited when the BBC’s Sherlock first aired. Here was a character who seems like such a product of his Victorian roots, dusted off and updated for our shiny modern times. The stories were flashy and fun, and while I don’t entirely get the crush everyone has on Benedict Cumberbatch, I will admit that he’s charming and urbane and enjoyable to watch dashing around solving mysteries. So when I heard that CBS also had an updated Holmes story, set in New York and with Lucy Liu rather improbably playing Watson, I was dismissive. How could regular old American network television compete with the stylish offerings of Masterpiece Mystery and the BBC?
And yet…I kept hearing things. Things that implied that CBS’s Elementary was quite good. And well, I do like Jonny Lee Miller, who plays their Holmes, and we had just finished up with a season of Deadwood and had a hole in the schedule, and it was still winter…I mentioned to Mr. Menace (who’d seen it) that I wanted to give it a shot. The fates smiled and boxed set of season one came into our possession, and we were off to the races.
Within an episode or two I could easily agree that the show was quite good, and really a very different approach to telling a Sherlock Holmes story. Miller and Liu have a good (non-romantic! This is important.) chemistry, and the writing is sharp. It took until Season 1 episode 19, “Snow Angels,” for me to realize how much more I like Elementary’s take on Sherlock Holmes overall, though.
This isn’t to say that I don’t still enjoy Sherlock – I do, very much. But “Snow Angels” drove home all the ways that an American tv show, not even on cable mind you, but on regular network television, is way more progressive than its slick British cousin could ever hope to be.
The revelation came at the appearance of Ms. Hudson, Elementary’s take on Mrs. Hudson, Sherlock’s landlady in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales. Here, she’s first presented as a potential client and powerful intellect in her own right, who does eventually come on to help keep the brownstone clean by the end of the episode – not the landlady, but a similar role to what Mrs. Hudson does for Sherlock in the stories and in the BBC’s show. She also happens to be a transgender woman.
This alone would make for fairly progressive television, but it gets even better:
1. Only one reference is made to the fact that she’s a transgender woman – after that, we all move on.
2. She’s actually played by a transgender actress, Candis Cayne.
All in all, it’s a small role in one episode, but it’s a pretty big social statement to make. And once it sunk in, I realized how many the show is making. Many of the major supporting characters are played by actors of color – I couldn’t think of any on Sherlock. While Elementary kept Sherlock Holmes a white, British man, it took the second most prominent character, Dr. Watson, and made her an Asian woman. And rather, as I feared, than make the relationship between them romantic, it is instead a true partnership. Dr. Joan Watson is becoming a detective in her own right on the show, and it ‘s clear that she’s with Sherlock because he respects her. As I thought about Sherlock’s Watson, played by Martin Freeman, I realized that while *I* really like him, because Martin Freeman is adorable and loveable and an all-around great actor, I couldn’t really figure out why Sherlock likes him so much. Yes, he’s up for adventure and doggedly loyal, but what attracts the greatest mind in the world to those qualities?
From there, it was a short leap to the most damning truth of all – I like Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock Holmes more than I like Benedict Cumberbatch’s. The Holmes that Sherlock has created is certainly quirky and brilliant, but he’s also very clean and very, very cold. We’re told that he’s a recovering drug addict, yet it seems entirely unlikely watching him in action. We’re told he loves Watson like a brother (more than his actual brother, in fact) and yet I can’t seem to see that affection or figure out where it springs from. This Sherlock is almost like a robot – almost every time we see him do something real and human, it’s part of some cunning plan he has.
Miller’s Holmes, on the other hand, while also a bit emotionally distant on the surface, is clearly a seething mass of feelings at his core. Miller plays him with a ramrod straight posture that is offset by constant, twitching energy. He’s always fidgeting and bouncing and exercising. Calm, then explosive. It feels very much the way a man still haunted by his demons would act. The writers show him coming to terms with these feelings, as well as the repercussions of his choice to keep other people at arm’s length, for the most part.
And his affection for Watson seems genuine and slowly earned over time. Part of this is easily explained by the format differences between the two shows – Sherlock’s “seasons” consist of three long-form 90 minute episodes, more mini-movie than anything, while Elementary has 24, 45-minute long episodes in which to draw out the drama. There’s just more time for things like character development and relationships. But I can’t help but feel that Sherlock ends up feeling a little empty by comparison – more flash and less substance than Elementary has to offer.
That’s not to say I’ll stop watching Sherlock – ultimately I’m glad to have two great Holmes tales to enjoy instead of one. But I’d be curious to hear what the rest of you think – do you watch one of these shows? Both? Which do you like more and why?
Oh, and before I let you go, can I tell you about a super cool event coming up that the Ladies are going to be a part of?
On Sunday, April 27th at 6 pm, we’re teaming up with Bone Daddy Burgers to bring you a spring fling you won’t want to miss!
It’s going to be an entire evening of food and fun. First, Bone Daddy’s will provide some of the best burgers and fries you’ve ever tasted (even the veggie burger is out of this world!)
There will also be a raffle with some out of sight prizes, including Boston Derby Dames tickets.
Then at 7, the Ladies will be offering a FREE Muppet viewing party! This will be open to the public but seats are first come, first served – the best way to ensure a spot is to go the earlier event.
For the burger portion of the evening there are a very limited number of tickets, so if you’re interested, don’t delay, get ‘em now! There are a variety of levels to choose from, depending on how much swag you want to take home. http://www.gofundme.com/6luyc8 The magic happens from 6-7 pm, and the Ladies will have a table!
All proceeds from the party will benefit Bone Daddy’s expansion of their food truck empire.
It’s all going down at Comicazi, 407 Highland Avenue, Somerville – just steps away from the Davis T stop, so if you’re local, join us.