“There is nothing new under the sun,” the snottiest detective in all of literature told his assistant, Dr. Watson, 125 years ago in A Study in Scarlet. “It has all been done before.” Maybe, but as Ella Fitzgerald used to sing, “It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it.”
Sherlock Holmes is more than just the first great fictional detective. (Well, perhaps the second if you count Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own inspiration, Edgar Allen Poe’s Inspector August Dupin.) Holmes is the most adaptable of characters, having been portrayed by more actors than any other. On screen, played by Basil Rathbone, he caught Nazi spies, and in a novel by an American writer, Loren Estleman, he even outwitted Dracula. But by the end of the 20th century, the traditional Holmes, the creature of late Victorian London, was played out. Jeremy Brett, the greatest of all Holmes who played him on British TV from 1984–1994, defined the role so perfectly he finished it off.
Now Holmes has been revived in two very different television series: Sherlock, the electrifying BBC series starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson, and CBS’s Elementary, which drops Jonny Lee Miller’s tattooed Holmes in a New York City brownstone (borough unidentified) with a female Watson played by Lucy Liu. Both Cumberbatch and Miller are superb, offering two different interpretations of the detective. Cumberbatch plays him as supremely confident; Miller’s Holmes, a recovering addict, is more vulnerable and occasionally uncertain in his new environment. (Miller’s sleuth is sometimes so driven that he seems ready to hit the nose candy again.)
Which show is better? That’s not a tough pick—it’s like comparing a good heavyweight to a good middleweight. Elementary is first-rate American television in what is being called the “procedural” tradition. Sherlock is some of the most dazzling TV ever produced. Elementary is set up so the viewer can, if he is keener to detail than I am, anticipate the solution to the mystery; in this, at least, it is closer to Doyle’s model than Sherlock. Episodes of Sherlock, on the other hand, invariably carry Holmes to a new dimension. Each show ends a hint of Borgesian uncertainty, as if the mystery can never quite be satisfactorily explained. Dread hangs in that London fog in a way it never could in mystery stories set in neon-lit New York.
Sherlock, with its sinister background music, rapid cuts, and word clues that, if we look fast, tell us what Holmes is taking in, is hipper and more adult than an American primetime show could ever be. Witness the episode, A Scandal in Belgravia, with its spectacular nude shots of Lara Pulver as Irene Adler.
The dialogue in Sherlock is sharper (though to many Americans such rapid-fire English may come off as a foreign language), but Miller has his moments. “Ah,” he exclaims on opening the door of a crime scene, “I detect cheap cologne, cigarette, and a whiff of existential angst.”
Sherlock has several advantages over Elementary, or at least angles that the latter show has not yet explored. The most obvious one is that Martin Freeman’s Watson, in a clever update of the old Watson-as-Holmes-chronicler, now blogs Sherlock’s exploits, turning him into a kind of pop star. Thus Cumberbatch’s Holmes constantly runs into people that know him or think they know him from his online persona. This gives Cumberbatch more to play off of than Miller, whose Holmes isn’t merely a newcomer in New York but a complete unknown. (My guess is that will change in future episodes as the relationship between Miller’s and Liu’s characters develops.)
Liu’s presence in the series offers an outstanding opportunity for Elementary to bring Holmes up to date in a way Doyle could never have anticipated. Kingsley Amis thought that James Bond was not merely the equal of Sherlock Holmes as a literary character, but was superior because Bond was a fuller man: “He loved women.” Doyle’s Holmes, aside from his brief flirtation with Ms. Adler, is surely the only prominent asexual character in detective literature.
The purists may howl if something gets going between Miller and Liu—and considering how sexy Liu’s deadpan stares can be, one would have to hope this is inevitable. G.K. Chesterton felt that Watson was an important component in the stories because he was very nearly Holmes’s equal. Nabokov even thought that Watson was formidable enough to create the ultimate Holmes mystery, one where Watson himself challenged Holmes by committing the crime. (This is why the least satisfying manifestation of Holmes was the Basil Rathbone movies, where Nigel Bruce’s Watson is a bumbler there to only supply comic relief.) The atmosphere of the stories, Chesterton wrote, is “the glamour of Watson’s inexhaustible power of wonder.” Chesterton didn’t know it, but he described Lucy Liu. Fine with me if Miller and Liu develop a sexual relationship—marriage, after all, didn’t hold back Dashiell Hammett’s Nick and Nora Charles.
In tonight’s episode, “The Long Fuse,” the tension of whether or not Liu’s Watson will leave Miller’s Holmes—she was hired by his father as a companion to help him stay clean from a drug addiction—overrides even a crackling good plot about a mad bomber. I don’t believe that Holmes is going to let her go. This is the first Watson who ever truly threatened Holmes, and it’s exhilarating to see his arrogance taken down a peg.
It’s good to know that Elementary is one of the hits of the new season; CBS has even announced a special episode for the coveted post–Super Bowl slot to introduce the show to a vaster audience. The only mystery is why viewers would wait that long to discover Elementary.