Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation have never had it so good. While I confess to never having read a single story featuring Sherlock Holmes I am currently in thrall to two separate versions of the character and his supporting cast.
The BBC version of Sherlock debuted to enormous acclaim in 2010 as three 90 minutes movies. Set in modern day, Sherlock fully exploits every modern medium of information gathering at his disposal while displaying an extraordinary eye and a superior intellect. Played by an angular alien with the improbable name of Bendymutch Cummerbund, this version of Sherlock can seem cruel. He is motivated by solving puzzles far more than solving crimes.
Sherlock’s bromance with Dr. John Watson is often played for laughs in the BBC version with everyone, including Mrs. Hudson, assuming they are a romantic couple. Martin Freeman gets to roll out his complete range of exasperation faces as Sherlock behaves like an insensitive boor at every possible occasion. The episodes rattle along with enormous verve and there’s no denying the chemistry between the leads. It’s even fun just to look at and I never get tired of contrasting Cummerbund’s Ginsu-sharp physiognomy with Freeman’s collapsed Yorkshire pudding of pissed-offness.
Over the pond, the success of the model was noted and duplicated. The NBC series Elementary matches the modern setting for Sherlock Holmes and adds a few original twists. In this version Holmes is a recovering addict. Joan Watson is his sober companion assigned to watch over him. Joan has abandoned her career as a surgeon and rejects the title of Dr. So far, so gimmicky. Early reports expressed concern with the stunt casting of a woman as Watson and [SPOILERS] wait till they get a load of Moriarty [/SPOILERS].
Nevertheless while the BBC takes two years to churn out three new episodes, NBC is putting out 20+ per year and any concerns about stunt casting soon dissipated once the show got underway. At the start of the series Sherlock Holmes has completed a stint in rehab after sinking into heroin addiction following the death of his girlfriend. Humiliated and less sure of himself than he is used to, he has relocated to New York to avoid former associations. When we meet him he is brilliant, but brittle. Played by Jonny Lee Miller, this Sherlock is on the way to becoming more self aware and less self-satisfied. Miller has had an interesting career. He was ace in Hackers and Trainspotting. He was briefly married to Angelina Jolie. Later he moved to TV where he starred in Eli Stone and played a baddie on Dexter. Miller’s Sherlock may be a tattooed narcissist, but his post-rehab vulnerability gives his character more depth than Cummerbund’s version is afforded.
Also key to the success of Elementary is Lucy Liu’s Watson. This is the same Lucy Liu who was a deranged dominatrix in Payback and a psychotic midget ninja in Kill Bill, but here she is doing work that is more gentle, more sophisticated and more satisfying than anything else I have seen her in.
Over the past two days both Sherlock and Elementary have aired new episodes. In Sherlock, Sherlock is back from the dead after two years. “The Empty Hearse” was great fun and the stylishness of previous escapades was maintained, but I couldn’t help feeling that Freeman’s Watson has been reduced to the role of the helpless female companion. It’s hard for me to remember why this version of Sherlock needs a Watson. He gets into scrapes. He comes over all emotional. He really doesn’t seem to be helping.
In Elementary, Liu’s Watson is Sherlock’s guide to the real world. She is his connection to humanity and he gratefully acknowledges the important lessons he has learned from her. During careful moments Miller’s Sherlock has described Joan Watson as ‘extraordinary’, something Cummerband’s Sherlock could never admit about another.
The raison d’etre of the BBC Sherlock is entertainment. It is brash, rapid and sometimes goes for the cheap laugh. By spending more time developing character, Elementary‘s moments of levity are earned and its mystery-of-the-week procedural dullness is less important than character development.
I’m loving both these Sherlocks. You might too.
- Currently reading – Sweet Tooth, I’m now on page 72 should get more done over shabbat
- Simchas attended so far this year – 1 (1 batmitzvah)
- Podcasts listened to – Brain of Britain, This American Life #514 “Thought that Counts”
- Level achieved in QuizUp, Topic: Classic Literature – 32, Best in Israel
- Total no. of levels of Candy Crush completed – 287
- TV episodes watched today – Sherlock 301 – “The Empty Hearse”; Elementary 212 – “The Diabolical Kind”