Sherlock Holmes (On CBS) Vs. Sherlock Holmes (On BBC)

There was no shortage of grumbling when CBS announced they'd be producing Elementary, a modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes set in New York City. After all, the BBC is prepping for the third season of Sherlock, a modern-day take on Sherlock Holmes set in London. The BBC series, created by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat, is critically-acclaimed and a geek darling.

While there are some legal gymnastics involved, the character of Sherlock Holmes is considered to be public domain. So there's nothing to stop anyone from using him. And the Sherlock-like figure is an enduring literary device (check out the column I wrote about that). Just about any detective-type show on television has roots in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's quirky consulting detective. (See: House, Psych, The Mentalist, Bones, Monk, I could do this all day...)

So no one has exclusive rights to the character. But given the pedigree of the show on BBC, comparisons to the new American series were inevitable. 

To be fair, we're only two episodes into Elementary, and two seasons (or six hour-and-a-half episodes) into Sherlock. So I'll address the various elements of the show with a full understanding that Elementary goes into this with a bit of a handicap.

Now, let's break down the major components and see how they stack up:


On Elementary, Sherlock Holmes is portrayed by Johnny Lee Miller. On Sherlock, he's portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch. Incidentally, both actors appeared in a stage production of Frankenstein in the UK, where they alternated the roles of Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature. It was very good!

It's important to get something out of the way first: Neither character really conforms to the Doyle canon. The original Holmes was brilliant, aloof, somewhat asexual, prone to bouts of depression or intense exuberance, and always very impressed with himself.

Miller and Cumberbatch play the character to different extremes. Miller's is impatient, distracted, and vaguely childlike in his enthusiasm. He's tattooed, and even enlists the services of hookers, despite the fact that Holmes is often portrayed as uncomfortable with sex. The driving element of Miller's portrayal, though, seems to be that he knows he's smarter than the people around him, but he doesn't want to belabor the point, he's just happy to figure things out.

Cumberbatch, meanwhile, knows he's the smartest man in the room, and he wants you to know it, too. He's dismissive, alien, slightly dangerous and sometimes cruel to those around him (though he does display moments of levity and affection for those close to him).

In the previous clip, you'll notice that Miller's Holmes goes out of his way to spare Watson's feelings. Cumberbatch's Holmes doesn't do that, as you can see from this compilation of his various insults:

Another big difference between the characters--made clear in last night's episode of Elementary--is their motivation. Miller's Holmes wants to catch killers; Cumberbatch's Holmes wants to solve puzzles. 

Miller and Cumberbatch do have one thing in common: Both of their Sherlocks use iPhones.


Dr. John Watson serves two purposes for Sherlock Holmes: He's a sounding board and a link to the rest of the world. It's seemingly thankless, and Holmes may not always show his appreciation, but the reality is that Holmes needs Watson.

Martin Freeman portrays Watson on Sherlock. The character sticks close to canon--both versions meet Holmes shortly after returning from war in Afghanistan. Freeman is great at playing exasperated, a state in which Watson constantly finds himself. 

The creators of Elementary made quite a departure from the original work, changing the gender of the character. Lucy Liu is Joan Watson, and she's not a war veteran but a "sober companion." (This version of Holmes was drummed out of London for some type of addiction issue. Doyle's version of the character was a habitual cocaine user). 

Again, we're comparing two different things--two seasons of Sherlock versus two episodes of Elementary. Liu comports herself well in the role, and I appreciate that the writers aren't creating some kind of ridiculous "will they or won't they hook up" vibe between her and Miller. Most importantly, she grounds him, just like a good Watson should: 

Some people are purists--they complain when even minor changes are made to established characters--so I'm curious to see if viewers end up embracing Liu, or cooling to the idea of a female Watson. Time will tell. 

The setting

Sherlock is set in London. Every time I watch it I want to live in London. The Baker Street flat shared by Holmes and Watson feels lived-in, and has a great deal of character. I appreciate that the characters traipse around the city, but I wonder how much the dynamic would be changed if it were removed from London. Not much, maybe? 

Elementary is set in New York City--and I'm a sucker for any show set in New York City. So much so that if I stumble across CSI:NY I will watch it, even though it's stupid. I like the idea of Holmes in New York, though so far it's window dressing. Not bad window dressing, but I'm hoping the setting influences the show a bit more. 

The only real gripe I have about the setting is that Joan receives a call on her cell while in a subway station. While the occasional cell signal will sneak through, it's very rare, so I call shenanigans on the writers. 

The style

Sherlock is a visually kinetic show. Text messages are overlaid on the screen and Holmes makes his deductions in snap-cut freeze frames. There's action, sure, but there's movement even in scenes that are chiefly cerebral. And the show is full of quirk--like when Holmes barges into his Baker Street flat, carrying a harpoon and covered in blood, and proclaims, "Well that was tedious." There's a charming undercurrent of the absurd. 

Elementary lacks that visual flair. In the first episode it shows a murder--that installment's driving mystery--in a type of veiled slo-mo that looked almost like it was trying to ape Sherlock's style. Ultimately, while Miller brings life to the role, the show feels like a paint-by-numbers crime drama. The creators have shown themselves willing to take a risk--making Watson a woman--so I hope they continue to take risks. At the moment, the show feels a tad generic.

Ultimately, if the character wasn't named Sherlock Holmes, it wouldn't be that different a show. 

The canon

This is another place where the show diverges into wildly different directions. Sherlock hews very closely to Doyle's stories. The very first episode of Sherlock, A Study in Pink, is a take on A Study in Scarlet, the very first Holmes story. And the episode is riddled with parallels--in Doyle's story, Holmes deduces things about Watson from his pocket watch, whereas in Sherlock, it's his cell phone. The rest of the series follows this tact, mining Doyle's stories for inspiration. 

No such luck with Elementary, which has hinted at issue between Holmes and his father, and Holmes and a woman (probably Irene Adler?). The original Holmes, of course, never moved to New York to consult with the NYPD. And there's that whole "Watson being a woman" thing. 

They're both fun for different reasons. Sherlock rewards readers of Doyle's stories with fun little bits of trivia and twists on the original work, while Elementary is unencumbered by that, and free to go off on its own direction. I'm sure they'll introduce some version of Moriarty and Adler for Miller's Holmes to tangle with, but ultimately, there's an element of freedom to the CBS series that's refreshing.

The verdict

If I had to choose one, I would go with Sherlock over Elementary in a heartbeat. But I don't have to choose one, and neither does anyone else. Two versions of Sherlock Holmes can exist, and one doesn't take away from the other. In fact, one would hope the creators are keeping an eye on each other, trying to outdo each other, and that's just going to result in better stories. 

I'm a little wary about Elementary at the moment, because like I mentioned, it's a tad generic. Miller and Liu are good in their roles, but they don't embody them in the way that Cumberbatch and Freeman do. The sheer excitement of Sherlock is missing in the American translation. Last night's episode in particular felt a little like an episode of Scooby-Doo--a wacky gang of characters running from place to place trying to figure things out.  

Though, again, there's not a great deal for me to judge it on yet. Another few episodes, when it hits a groove, is when we'll figure out whether it's a keeper. My hope is that they really embrace the relationship between Holmes and Watson, which is where the best stories come from. We're already starting to get hints of that, and it can only be a good thing. 


Have you watched both versions? Let's discuss. Who's your favorite Holmes? Your favorite Watson? 

Are you excited at the possibility presented by having two different interpretations of the character, or do you think it was creative laziness on the part of CBS?  

To leave a comment Login with Facebook or create a free account.


Ryan Hartman's picture
Ryan Hartman from Philadelphia is reading The Neverending Story by Michael Ende October 5, 2012 - 8:37am

I don't like the Elementary version of Sherlock Holmes at all.  I like Sherlock and I like House.  I like flawed genius jerks as driving characters.  Elementary comes off as WANTING to be that, but not achieving it.  I guess he's got to be more dismissive or something.  I don't know. I think you hit it in your analysis, it just feels too generic.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 5, 2012 - 8:40am

it's a tad generic

Exactly. So far, it's basically just another procedural. Not bad of itself, but doesn't really hold a candle: BBC wins. But like you said, it's only two episodes and it might get more interesting.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 5, 2012 - 8:41am

I'd take Elementary over House all day.

Dennis's picture
Dennis from Los Angeles is reading Necroscope by Brian Lumley October 5, 2012 - 9:00am

Nice job on this.  I love Sherlock and can't wait for it to return for its third season.  The writing is something that really stands out about the show.  I mean, jesus, each episode is the legnth of a feature film so they're covering a ton of ground.  While I have no interest in Elementary, I'll be curious to hear if the matching eventually stacks up.

Dianna Cunningham's picture
Dianna Cunningham October 5, 2012 - 9:11am

I think BBC's Sherlock is much better. I'm not sure if it's the location that does it, or the frantic moments in Cumberbatch's dialogue as Holmes. I wish the clips above showed some of Holmes' softer moments, though few in number. I think Cumberbatch does an amazing job. Something about the show screams 'real' to me. I also adore Freeman as Watson. I've never seen House, not sure what that is, but I did watch Monk when I was younger, and have watched Bones recently. Both are very good shows. My only complaint with Sherlock, is that there are so few episodes per season, and they take ages to shoot the next season.

My opinion is Sherlock > Elementary

Anabelle Bernard Fournier's picture
Anabelle Bernar... from Montréal is reading Robopocalypse October 5, 2012 - 9:56am

I personally revere Steven Moffat for his love of everything Victorian (have you seen his rework of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Effing brilliant!). His work with Sherlock is nothing short of extraordinary and I look forward to it every year. (but let's not talk about this first half-season of Dr. Who... disappointing.)

Have not seen Elementary yet, the episodes are in my watching queue. I'm always a bit weary when Americans copy a BBC thing--they tend to go the generic way to not alienate their audience too much (but then with the popularity of British shows like Dr. Who and Downton Abbey, they should know better).

In any case, if this is just another procedural with a quirky lead character, I'm happy with Bones, thank you very much.

jgabbard42's picture
jgabbard42 from Indiana is reading Secret Worlds of Colin Fletcher October 5, 2012 - 12:01pm

"Hey, I've got a great idea for a show!  Protag is a genius and has Asperger's.  He also has an assistant who is a former doctor.  The assitant humanize's our hero."

I actually like Elementary so far, but wish it wasn't about Holmes.  Wish it was called something else.

Sherlock is great, especially the first series.  Second series was a little un-even.

No mention of Robert Downey's Sherlock?  Game of Shadows was such a turd.



Leggygal's picture
Leggygal from Australia is reading Our Mutual Friend October 5, 2012 - 7:30pm

Cards on the table, I have a bit of a crush on Cumberbatch, so naturally am biased towards Sherlock. However reviewing them dispassionately, I'd still find in favour of Sherlock. I love its reinvigorating, modern interpretation of a classic and fantastic visual style.
While Liu and Miller make for attractive, watchable leads, I just wish they'd remove all references to Sherlock Holmes and stop pretending that the show is any more than standard detective fare with a couple of quirky characters. It all feels a little 'dumbed down', and reminiscent of a raft of other shows - as you said "it's a tad generic". I don't mind it - I just don't love it as much as Mr Moffat's offering. Favourite Holmes = Benedict Cumberbatch, Favourite Watson = Martin Freeman. In any case they are all better than the recent cinematic interpretation - as per the last poster - Game of Shadows was drivel.


bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. October 5, 2012 - 10:46pm

Every episode of Sherlock feels like a movie.  Elementary feels like a tv show.

Elementary doesn't seem like a show about Sherlock Holmes.  It reminds me of about a dozen other detective shows.  I like those shows, and I think I'll like Elementary, but it's no Sherlock.

JEFFREY GRANT BARR from Central OR is reading Nothing but fucking Shakespeare, for the rest of my life October 6, 2012 - 12:40am

I had very high hopes for Elementary, and I hope it steps up in future episodes. It's a perfectly good show... but it isn't Sherlock, not by any measure. Hell, it isn't even House. 

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson October 6, 2012 - 12:02pm

Sherlock is smart, funny and cinematic, and has more or less redeemed Steven Moffat for me after he messed with my WHO. Cumberbatch and Freeman are brilliant, top-notch actors with excellent chemistry. I can't speak to Elementary as I've not seen it and don't plan to. I'm tired of American producers remaking perfectly good/excellent British programs to appeal to a US audience and dumbing them down in the process (I'm looking at you, Prime Suspect and State of Play). To me, Elementary is just more of the same, trying to cash in on Sherlock's popularity and drawing in the non-PBS crowd.

Seb's picture
Seb from Thanet, Kent, UK October 6, 2012 - 1:18pm

Sherlock wins hands down. The writing is outstanding, courtesy of Steven Moffat (Coupling, Jekyll) and Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen), acting is way above par, plus four out of the six episodes so far were directed by Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin, Wicker Park, Gangster No. 1). Elementary feels like most US "detective" shows, all one offs with a loose long-running story. Sherlock is a long, twisted tale, which doesn't explain everything, unlike Guy Ritchie's Shitlock Holmes which just assumes the audience is stupid. You need tension, conflict, and real respect for the source material. Sherlock gets everything right.

Also, I hate US remakes of UK shows. Life On Mars? The Inbetweeners? Coupling? Dumbed down, stilted, staged, poor excuses to cash in on success. Time will tell for Elementary but so far I'm bored.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 6, 2012 - 1:22pm

I liked Prime Suspect. (Never saw the original.) The episodes were getting better each week and then they axed it. (Ratings are ratings, I guess.) I won't be surprised if the same happened to Elementary.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 6, 2012 - 1:28pm

I have no intent or desire to advocate on behalf of US TV in general, remakes or otherwise.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. October 6, 2012 - 2:18pm

After watching the first episode of Elementary, I had to remind myself that it was supposed to be based on Sherlock Holmes.  Other than the names, there is very little that makes me think of the books or various movies about the books.  It reminds me more of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo more than it does Sherlock Holmes.

Like I said, I don't think it's bad on its own.  It's a lot like every other detective show.  But it's nowhere near Sherlock (which is genius in writing, acting, and visuals (and probably directing, but I never notice directing unless it's horrible)).

Cath Murphy's picture
Cath Murphy from UK is reading Find out on the Unpr!ntable podcast October 7, 2012 - 1:21am

Ah, the slavish American belief that because a show comes out of the BBC it must be good.

Sherlock  is no less of a 'remake' than Elementary. The fact one predates the other is irrelevant. Both are just retellings of the same novel series. So lets get the notion that because Elementary came along second and is made in the US it's necessarily a dumbed down version of a superior British original, right out of our heads please.

I vastly prefer Elementary  to Sherlock but I will now drape myself in a veil of mystery and reserve my arguments for the first edition of the LitReactor podcast, where Rob and I are scheduled to do battle on this very subject.

bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. October 7, 2012 - 9:09am

We weren't discussing which was more original, I don't think.  It's more about which one we like more and why.


bryanhowie's picture
bryanhowie from FW, ID is reading East of Eden. Steinbeck is FUCKING AMAZING. October 7, 2012 - 9:22am

Which reminds me of one of my favorite Holmes inspired things: Neil Gaiman "A Study in Emerald" (links to a .pdf)

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 7, 2012 - 10:55am

Has anyone ever attempted to show the formation of the Holmes/Watson partnership? I remember them being an established pair in every iteration I've seen or read. Did any of the original Doyle works go back and tell that story? (I haven't read any of them since my teenage years.) If not, Elementary is distinct -- and perhaps even daring -- in more than the superficial (Watson being a woman, its setting in New York, etc.)

[It seems they do.]

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson October 7, 2012 - 10:36am

Yes, Holmes and Watson meet in Sherlock.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like October 7, 2012 - 10:58am

Really? I missed the first episodes. Does the second season skip forward in time a bit? They seem to know each other pretty well.

EDIT - SPOILER - I mean, by the end of Sherlock season two Watson is crying. Maybe the writers are just assuming the viewer already knows Holmes and Watson are a pair, so they didn't feel obliged to actually develop the relationship "realistically."

Emma C's picture
Class Facilitator
Emma C from Los Angeles is reading Black Spire by Delilah Dawson October 7, 2012 - 11:29am

Yes, they meet in the first, and by the third Watson has decided to stick around. He's there to keep Holmes grounded (inasmuch as he can), and Holmes in turn gives him purpose as he struggles with PTSD and survivor guilt. Like a lot of Brit "series" it has a shorter run than a typical US drama with longer episodes so there are gaps of time between episodes. That said I quite liked the way the relationship was developed over the first series.

I did not mean to imply that UK series are inherently superior to US, only that the US seems to have gotten lazy both creatively and culturally, knocking off its own films and TV as much as it adapts foreign fare. That's not to say the adaptations are inferior (though IMO Prime Suspect and State of Play were). I just wish we as a culture were more open to importing our entertainment, because we don't own all the great stuff out there.