Columns > Published on October 5th, 2012

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?  

About the author

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor. His latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, will be released on Feb. 22 by Ballantine. He also wrote The Warehouse, which sold in more than 20 languages and was optioned for film by Ron Howard. Other titles include the Ash McKenna crime series, the short story collection Take-Out, and Scott Free with James Patterson. Find more at

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