Sherlock, Reloaded

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes
Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes — still the best faithful adaptation of the original stories

I’m a big fan of the new(ish) Sherlock made by the BBC. I was also a big fan of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the very faithful 80/90s adaptations, but when I tried to watch them again with my wife I found the production quality, the audio quality in particular, to be dreadful, and the pacing to verge on glacial. (This is not a universal flaw in British productions of the era — All Creatures Great and Small holds up beautifully.)

Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson
Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson in the BBC’s Sherlock. Witty, well-paced, clever visual effects, and very stylish.

Even so, I felt a bit skeptical of the new Sherlock at first simply out of loyalty to the Jeremy Brett version (I guess I hate having to update entries in my brain’s database — I already knew the answer to “best TV Sherlock Holmes adaptation”), but I was almost instantly won over by the very clever adaptation of the Victorian tropes of the original books to the present day. Holmes is festooned with nicotine patches, is virtuoso with cell phone texting, and he and Watson are assumed by almost everyone to be homosexuals owing to their lifestyle.

Lucy Liu as Watson, Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes
Lucy Liu as Watson, Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes from CBS’s Elementary — clever original stories in a decent but inferior package

Shortly after watching the second season of Sherlock (purchased on iTunes) I saw the free pilot for Elementary and felt obliged to watch it, despise it, and perhaps write a vitriolic negative review (or maybe just a nasty tweet). Unfortunately my plans came to nought as I quite enjoyed the pilot, although I wondered if it would be sustainable. Eight episodes in that and the answer is a definite yes. In general, the show has gotten stronger with each episode. Indeed, it’s a nice counterpoint to Sherlock, but it makes me wish we might perhaps combine the merits of the two shows.

The main flaw of the BBC’s Sherlock is that it inherits a bit of the breathless incoherence of Dr. Who (which has lately been controlled by the same key people). Almost everything about the show is great except for the actual plots which often don’t make much sense. and this leads to the virtues which are many — acting, dialog, presentation are all perfect, and I particularly like the deft use of visual effects. I loved the fact that all the Victorian tropes got mapped to modern equivalents except Watson’s health having been ruined in Afghanistan, which was perfect as is.

Elementary, in contrast, is inferior in almost all respects to Sherlock except for the actual mysteries, which are both original rather than adapted, more coherent, cleverer, and finally represent a better mapping of the original mysteries to the present day. And I should say that while inferior in many other respects, Elementary is still well cast, well acted, and looks good. It’s just very unusual for a US network show to be less polished than its BBC counterpart. Lucy Liu works out surprisingly well as Watson and is a stronger — if less entertaining — Watson than her counterpart in Sherlock. (Both are more interesting characters than the actual Watson, who in turn is not the gormless prat of the Basil Rathbone movies.) And indeed while Sherlock‘s nicotine patches are funnier, Sherlock’s heroin addiction in Elementary is truer to the books (nicotine patches aren’t as risque as Cocaine addiction).

Luckily, we don’t need to pick one over the other. Both are good, I just hope Elementary gets renewed and Sherlock can squeeze out more than four episodes per year.