It’s fairly common in fan-driven web spaces to see a critical fissure in the current Holmesian fandom—the split being between those who adore Sherlock and those who would like to explain why its American counterpart, Elementary, is currently trouncing the BBC gem in several important arenas.
If it is news to you that there are people who do not adore Sherlock… well, now it’s not. And the split is extending itself to the critical sphere, too; even the AV Club is keen to enlighten us as to why Sherlock should be learning a thing or two from its cross-Atlantic cousin. There are some incredibly valid points on this front for sure, but I keep the thinking the vitriol on either side is blinding what might be a very interesting give and take on how to successfully update beloved stories.
(Spoilers for plot details of both Sherlock and Elementary.)
A factor that I believe is essential to the conversation—the primary reason why Sherlock garners such a critical gaze, even without Elementary on the scene, is that writer and show runner Steven Moffat does not have a stellar track record when it comes to depicting characters who are not cisgendered straight white men. I would not dispute that claim in the slightest. However, it is important to consider that Moffat is not running Sherlock alone. He has a co-runner in Mark Gatiss, and that does alter the primary voice driving the story and characters forward. It means that the makeup of Sherlock is significantly different than, say, Doctor Who. (Which Moffat also runs.)
This can sometimes lead to attributing certain unspoken undercurrents to Sherlock that are not necessarily accurate. For example, a number of fans expressed anger over Mary’s bridesmaid Janine and her end game against Sherlock in “His Last Vow” once she finds out that his marriage proposal was a sham. Many insisted that by having her sell fake stories about their relationship to tabloids, Janine was being cast in a “shrewish, heartless money-grubbing bitch” light, though Sherlock himself seems not at all bothered by her choice, and more than a little humbled at her insistence that they might have been friends had he not lied to her. What’s interesting is that Steven Moffat, when discussing Janine’s decision at a recent Apple Store event in London, claimed that he had Janine take that action to get back at Sherlock for the personal dismay he had felt upon reading the parallel canon tale as a child.
In other words, he essentially had Janine act on his childhood desires to take revenge on Sherlock for being a jerk—which he had wanted to do since the tender age of twelve. (It’s important to remember that the woman in Doyle’s original tale had no such refuge, and we’re never told what happens to her once her “betrothed” simply up and abandons her. It was a pretty nasty move on Holmes’ part.) Sure, it’s not the most mature reasoning for a character choice, but not intended to cast Janine in a poor light either. When these sorts of misunderstandings are aligned with the actual problems Sherlock has in terms cast diversity and depicting non-male and/or non-straight peoples, things get pretty murky in trying to dissect places where the show could really do better.
So what happens when you throw Elementary into the pot?
Elementary has a lot of things going for it in a world that is currently becoming re-overrun with adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Joan Watson is played by a woman of color (the always formidable, ever-classy Lucy Liu), and she is utterly respected by her counterpart. Rather than playfully belittling his partner the way that Cumberbatch’s version is frequently known for, Johnny Lee Miller’s Sherlock holds Watson in an esteem that is expressed outwardly to her, and to their colleagues; much more in line with Doyle’s original incarnation in that regard. They are played as equals according to the show’s premise—Sherlock even recruits Watson as an apprentice because he believes she can develop a skill set much like his own and become a detective. It features a relationship between a man and a woman that is a true, deep friendship with no other strings attached.
The show makes a clearly conscious effort to represent people of different races, sexualities, and social classes. From Mrs. Hudson’s portrayal by trans actress Candis Cayne to Alfred Llamosa’s continuing journey as Sherlock’s sober sponsor and recovering addict, there is no one on the show who does not receive considered portrayal and something beyond passing insults from Sherlock on any given day. He works with these people as a member of a team instead of wandering off on his own to play Super Detective. Which is not to say that Miller’s Holmes is never abrasive—it’s just that when he is, he doesn’t get away with it. He is constantly called out when his behavior doesn’t pass muster, and that is often. When he goes too far, he actually damages his relationships; there is no reset button and the people in his life are less willing to put up with his more aggravating tics.
All of these things are good, so lets move on to where Elementary shows some weaknesses, the primary one being its standard police procedural format. American shows have been stuck in this tried and true formula for ages, particularly in Holmesian offshoots—Psych, The Mentalist, Monk and many other Holmes stand-ins always go this route. Sure, it’s nice to have more than five hours of television every two years, but when you’re dealing with a police procedural, it’s hard to tell the difference. Most of your character development will take place between crime-solving (which is usually murder, and sort of dreary when you remember that Holmes solved all manner of mysteries in the canon). That means that you generally get a few scenes per episode of good character work. It drags a little.
I’ll admit to some bias in that area, as there are very few police procedurals that garner my consistent affection. (Actually, just White Collar these days, and that pointedly tackles lots of crimes that are not centered around murders, so there you go.) So I’ll move on to what many people consider to be one of the show’s greatest strengths—the choice to make Irene Adler and Moriarty the same person, thereby making Holmes’ greatest opponent a woman.
I love Natalie Dormer in just about anything, and the switch is an admirable go at giving women more interesting roles in the world of television. I would have been over the moon about the flip were it not for one minor detail—she is Sherlock’s former lover, and he has romantic feelings for her.
So… the show managed to avoid making Holmes and Watson a couple even though Watson was now a woman, but then neglected to do the same for Jamie Moriarty. Sherlock and “The Woman” now have a sexual relationship, which is fine because this is taking place over a century after Adler’s story was first told. But by making her also Moriarty, Elementary made a significant blunder in their reimagining—the suggestion that a relationship between Holmes and Moriarty is viable because they now fall into the boundaries of a heteronormative couple.
Being a queer woman, this actually grates me more than Sherlock and Jim’s aborted kiss on the roof in “The Empty Hearse.” At least that moment was being used as an illustration of fan culture, and pointedly shook a stick at enthusiasts who behave like Anderson, who insist that women who enjoy slash fiction are “bad” fans ruining the experience for everyone else. On the other hand we have Elementary giving us the relationship so many people are curious about, right? What could be wrong with that? As the AV Club article says in support of the Sherlock/Jamie pairing: “Who else would a man obsessed with solving crime fall in love with?” Of course! Obviously with his equal opposite, the criminal genius who can outsmart him at every turn, who continues to intrigue and surprise him.
But, you know… only if that mastermind has breasts and Holmes doesn’t.
So there’s a dialogue here, absolutely. There are ways in which Sherlock is firmly planted behind Elementary, but that doesn’t mean that the CBS darling has nothing to learn. So what can we deduce from the primary leads of either show? A common criticism of Sherlock is that the BBC characters constantly allow themselves to be stepped over because the resident genius in the room gets a free pass. But in regard to how both Holmes’ treat the people in their lives, I’m inclined to disagree that one is an inherently better depiction. There is an insistence among many Elementary-only fans that people who love Sherlock are willing to forgive all behavioral misdemeanors out of a misguided love for a central character who is really just an asshole. That people love Sherlock and specifically Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Sherlock so much, that he is such a poor woobie baby to all those fangirls, that they’ll allow him every excuse and laugh as he steamrollers the various lovely people in his life.
I would like to point out that there is another person out there who believes that most woman who watch Sherlock only do so because they’re attracted to the main character in some manner—that person is Steven Moffat. Does anyone see the problem I am having here?
At the end of the day, both shows are attempting to depict a very similar man by highlighting how he might fit into a social circle of very different people. It is awesome to observe Elementary’s Holmes get called out for his personal failings, to be scolded and never allowed an inch of superiority no matter how hard he grasps for it. Watching the people on all sides of him respect themselves enough to shoot him down when he’s rude, callous, and dismissive is important for viewers to see. It’s a reminder to all of us never to allow ourselves to be treated in a similar manner, no matter how brilliant our friends or colleagues may be.
On the other side of this coin, I would postulate something very different. I don’t believe that most fans of Cumberbatch’s Sherlock thoughtlessly worship his every perfect thought—I think they relate to him. (And I mean this particularly in regard to fangirls, the very same people who are being cast aside and told that they only like the show for an attractive lead.) His difficulty in social settings, his uncanny ability to always put his foot in it, to be insensitive or just plain mean when cornered. I don’t think the majority of people watching Sherlock merely forgive his flaws in favor of his brain; I think they connect with him and his difficulties, and that is essential in the arena of fan experience.
In BBC’s Sherlock Holmes, many are finding a hyped up, overblown version of personal failings we have all exhibited at one point or another. They are reacting to the dismissal and ire he receives from “normal society” (like Anderson, Donovan, and Sebastian). They are reacting to his inability to comprehend how anyone could care for him as a human being, no matter how useful his skill set is. And because he is a very damaged person, someone currently going through a slow process of construction, he requires friends who are willing to give him a wider berth. He doesn’t always deserve it, but that’s realistic to genuine personal relationships—some friends are enablers and pushovers. What progress Sherlock makes is a slow burn, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that narrative decision, or with seeing a piece of yourself in that characterization. Deciding that you like one version over the other does not mean that you are totally fine with codependency or draining friendships, and it certainly doesn’t mean that you think Sherlock Holmes deserves a constant pass when he’s being an awful person.
Taking issue with why other fans connect with certain works isn’t interesting in the long run. Good Holmesians know that every adaptation is a new twist, a hopefully intriguing spin on a comfortable theme. It shouldn’t be a competition—it has been and will always be a game. A Great Game, you might say. And though I think Lucy Liu is an unequivocal badass and Joan Watson is incredible, female Watsons have existed before out there. What amazes me more is that no one seems willing to take the extra groundbreaking steps here—
Like making Sherlock Holmes a woman.
Call me when that adaptation happens.