Television: Elementary v. Sherlock (Pre-Viewing Discussion)

Tonight Elementary will premiere on CBS. This is the show with a modern Sherlock Holmes (played by Jonny Lee Miller) in New York. There have already been, of course, many comparisons to BBC One's Sherlock, which is another modern Holmes (though set in his natural habitat of London). But I think, if not apples-to-oranges, this is more like red apples versus green.

CBS has secured its spot in the network hierarchy by offering procedurals with compelling central characters, and Elementary shows all the hallmarks of being exactly one of these kinds of shows. That's the audience Elementary is going for here, a known—and large—quantity. And by all accounts, the formula has been solidly adapted, including the gender switch of Watson, who in this take is played by Lucy Liu. CBS viewers are pretty used to core male/female teams. Coming out of upfronts, Elementary had a lot of buzz around it, and around the chemistry between the leads. It's poised to do well in its time slot, and to gather the usual strong and stable CBS audience.

As for fans of Sherlock, well, it seems to me they've already made the decision to dislike Elementary by dint of the fact they seem to think it treads on Sherlock's toes. But Elementary wasn't made for them. It's an entirely different sensibility, and I think it will be possible to enjoy both shows if one keeps an open mind and doesn't expect the same things from each. Because, aside from the use of Doyle's characters, they are not nearly the same.

I like Sherlock, and what's more I like Sherlock Holmes. I am open to a wide range of interpretations of him. Benedict Cumberbatch has done well in the BBC role, and I think JLM can carve out his own space on CBS. (As an aside: Cumberbatch and JLM played opposite one another in Frankenstein at the National Theatre, switching between the roles of Victor Frankenstein and his Creature, so I've seen them do the same roles very differently—and yet be equally successful.) What Elementary especially has going for it over Sherlock is that there will be more than three episodes every 18 months or so, its regular schedule allowing for audiences to find it easily instead of wondering, "When is that show coming back?" or "Is that show ever coming back?" (Also, one hopes, Elementary is recorded at a volume viewers can hear, and perhaps JLM's Sherlock won't talk so fast some people need their closed captioning, a repeated fuss I've heard from various Sherlock viewers.)

I'm looking forward to trying Elementary tonight. After it airs, you'll be able to find my thoughts on the show posted here. (Meanwhile, go read about why Sherlock didn't win any Emmys). In any case, I think there's plenty of room on the small screen for more than one Holmes. He was a man of many facets; it's only fair he be showcased in as many different ways. There are red apples and green apples in the world. Some people only like one or the other, but some people know that each has its uses, depending on the recipe.

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