Wednesday, October 16, 2013

SHERLOCK versus ELEMENTARY

As a child, I found some of my grandmother's furniture to be fascinating. She had a number of barrister book cases filled with books. I spent many hours examining and reading the books in my grandmother's library. I actually wore some of her books out by reading and re-reading them. One set of books that I almost demolished was a two volume collection of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. Thus began a lifelong fascination with Doyle's great detective. I have read and re-read all of Doyle's stories multiple times; I have watched many (but not all) of the Sherlock Holmes movies and television shows; and I have listened to every Sherlock Holmes radio play I could get my hands on.

Although I found some of the television and movie portrayals of the great detective to be unwatchable, I thoroughly enjoyed the Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce movies. Rathbone became the cinematic Holmes against whom all subsequent Holmeses are measured. The latest movie series with Robert Downey, Jr., is quite good, although not quite what Conan Doyle had in mind. The television series with Jeremy Brett was good, but I found Brett to be a little too heavy to be a convincing Sherlock Holmes. Many have played Holmes on radio, but none better than Clive Merrison in the BBC series.

Now we have two competing television series about the great detective--Elementary on CBS and Sherlock on BBC. Although they both bring Holmes to the twenty first century, they give very different portrayals. Elementary's Holmes (Johnny Lee Miller) is a recovering drug addict who lives and works in New York City, while Sherlock's Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a self-proclaimed "high functioning sociopath" living at the venerable address of 221B Baker Street in London.

Cumberbatch's Holmes seems to me to be closer to the original than Miller's. For example, Cumberbatch's Holmes is ridiculed by his enemies as a virgin, while Miller's Holmes seems to be quite promiscuous. Cumberbatch may be a little too close to the original Holmes; he sometimes comes off as a caricature of the original. I like both Cumberbatch and Miller as Holmes.

While both Cumberbatch and Miller are reasonable facsmiles of the original Holmes, Elementary's Watson is nothing like the original. First, he's a she (Lucy Liu). Second, Elementary's Watson is not a disabled veteran with PTSD. She's a surgeon who lost her nerve when she lost a patient on the operating table. Despite the fact that she's nothing like the original Watson, Liu carries off the part of Watson quite well. She's no dunce, and she becomes an indispensable colleague of Holmes. Sherlock's Watson (Martin Freeman) appears to me to be the second coming of the original Watson. He's a combat wounded veteran of the war in Afghanistan, and he's quite capable of handling himself in a scuffle. He's nothing like the bumbling Watson created by Nigel Bruce. Although I liked Bruce as Watson, I prefer the more capable Watsons portrayed by Liu and Freeman.

When we come to Irene Adler, we stray far afield from the original character. Sherlock's Irene (Lara Pulver) is a thoroughgoing scoundrel, somewhat on the same plane as the Irene Adler from Robert Downey's Holmes movies. The original Irene was a resourceful woman who lived somewhat outside the law, but she was not a villain. Elementary's Irene (Natalie Dormer) is a far more complex  character than either the original Irene or Sherlock's Irene. As with the Irene Adler from Robert Downey's Holmes movies, both Sherlock's and Elementary's Irene Adlers have a connection to Holmes's archnemesis, Moriarty. I think I prefer Sherlock's Irene Adler to Elementary's.

The original Moriarty was a professor of mathematics and the Napoleon of crime. Neither of the new Moriarties are professors, and aside from the fact that they are both brilliant the sole resemblance they have to the original Moriarty is their thoroughgoing criminality. Sherlock's Moriarty is as nutty as a fruitcake, while Elementary's Moriarty seems to be a more interesting, complex character. I was glad to see the original Moriarty go over the Reichenbach Falls, and I impatiently awaited the demise of Sherlock's Moriarty. I didn't like the character in the original stories, and I haven't liked him in any of his subsequent reincarnations--until Elementary. When offstage Elementary's Moriarty was the embodiment of evil, but when onstage was someone for whom you could feel sympathy. I didn't want to see Elementary's Moriarty die.

Both Elementary and Sherlock thoroughly reworked Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older and smarter (and heavier) brother. In Elementary, he is a skinny restaurant owner. Sherlock's Mycroft, although he is also thin, is much closer to the original. I liked Sherlock's Mycroft.

Both series abound with sly allusions to the original stories by Doyle, and it is fun picking them out. I do believe, though that Elementary far surpasses Sherlock in the area of plotting. The story line for the first two seasons of Sherlock veered into the surreal, with some of the characters, Moriarty in particular, engaging in irrational behavior. I'm not going to say that Elementary's plots were more realistic, but they did seem to be less unrealistic and the characters behaved rationally for the bizarre situations they found themselves in.

In the final analysis, both shows are entertaining and very watchable. As the saying goes, "Though he might be more humble, there's no police like Holmes."