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A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: Forget the Twists, Benedict Cumberbatch's 'Sherlock' Trumps 'Elementary'


Up until two weeks ago, 22 episodes of Elementary had been filling up precious space on my DIRECTV Genie. Once I subscribed to Netflix and was able to finally take my friend Ike’s advice (which he repeatedly offered) and watched Sherlock, I deleted all of them. Anyone who knows my love of Lucy Liu knows this is an unprecedented gesture.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes, has enjoyed a recent renaissance following Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of the famous literary detective in 2009. In addition to Downey’s two turns as Holmes in the very fun Guy Ritchie films, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch are also currently playing the character on the small screen in two different series that each feature Holmes in a modern setting.

Elementary, with Miller playing Holmes, is set in New York City with Liu as Dr. Joan Watson. Honestly, the casting of a woman as a character originally written as a man was already done to perfection in the Battlestar Galactica series with two characters, and the Elementary casting has always felt like an attempt at a cool twist rather than an inspired choice. Taking the hard drinking, womanizing Starbuck from the original Galactica and making the character into a woman was a brilliant idea playing on stereotypes, while making Dr. Watson a Joan instead of a John has always just seemed like a way to get an attractive female lead into the show. I watched the first few episodes of the first season but nothing I saw made me want to navigate to the show on my DVR when I picked up my remote, so it stayed unused on the hard drive for most of the past year.

Until I saw Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman staring at me from my newly subscribed Netflix welcome screen.

Two weeks ago during Thanksgiving break, I sat down on the couch and began looking at the offerings on Netflix. It will be at least another fourteen months until I can watch Daredevil, so I had resigned myself to enjoying some streaming television through the service. I just needed to find a series that would keep me watching and justify the $7.99 I would spend. House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black seemed to be the two obvious choices, as they are getting loads of buzz as awards season is beginning, but I decided to save those for later when I would be able to properly binge watch. Both of those shows are perfect viewing options for the upcoming two-week break from talking to high school seniors about the wonders of the new Common Core. As I was searching through the offerings and saw Cumberbatch and Freeman, I kept hearing Ike’s voice.

“Have you seen it yet?”

Wanting to finally be able to answer this question with a very affirming yes, I decided to start watching. Fifteen minutes into Sherlock, I hit pause to send Ike a text to let him know that not only was I watching but enjoying it immensely. As I did this I realized the show was an hour and half long and that the season was only three of these episodes.

So I stopped.

I stopped in order to be able to share the viewing experience with my wife because it’s always much more fun to be able to watch a show with someone else. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology you can watch with multiple friends through social media and texting, but it is very enjoyable to be sitting with someone and share their reactions and thoughts immediately after viewing a program or film. I see quite a few movies alone. Actually, a quick glance at a couple of the other Pop-Eds and it is apparent many of the other writers do as well. However, the experience is different when you can talk about what you have seen afterwards with someone, so I checked with Susan to see if she would like to watch with me.

We are now finished with the first season, plan to watch the second season next week, and then will pick up the third season when it starts in January.

So what prompted me to delete Elementary?

I enjoyed the first few episodes of Miller as Holmes but Cumberbatch’s Holmes is extraordinary. His first encounter with Watson in the series and his first time at a crime scene were absolutely perfect. When Miller delivers his deductions it feels like theories based on the evidence that he has observed. However, Cumberbatch’s delivery is more confidant because his Holmes is delivering the facts — he isn't theorizing a solution. I also really enjoy that the Holmes in Sherlock thrives on murder and mystery and sits shooting his gun at Mrs. Hudson’s walls when he is bored while a severed head is lying on the shelf in his refrigerator as he observes the coagulating blood pool.

With apologies to the fabulous Ms. Liu (I apologized first, O-Ren Ishii, so you can’t take my head), Freeman's Watson is also superior in the BBC version of Sherlock Holmes. The development of his character over the first three episodes has been done very well. Watson starts as a shattered man who simply follows Holmes in awe during the first case. He marvels as Holmes makes connections to observations that look trivial to him at first and then, as the season progresses, starts to make connections and deductions of his own. Holmes teaches him along the way and also makes sure that Watson knows that there are many connections that he has missed. By the end of the first season, Watson is a confidant companion to Holmes and as the season wraps, their connection and caring for each other is very evident. That bond may have eventually developed in Elementary. I did stop watching after a few episodes after all, but I can’t imagine it would look or feel the same.

*SPOILER ALERT* 

I am actually glad I found out another of Elementary’s plot twists before watching the show, because the twist would have been just another letdown. One of my students last year was writing her final paper on the modern versions of Holmes and discussing the reasons for changes and updates to the character. She revealed in her paper that Irene Adler, a Holmes love interest in the original stories and many adaptations, was actually Jamie Moriarty!

That exclamation point was written in sarcastic ink.

This is yet another “I want to appear clever, so I will switch the gender of the character” move. In addition, I can imagine the creators sitting around saying, “It will be awesome and in no way appear stunt casting if we make Jamie Moriarty *giggle giggle* Irene Adler. BOOM.”

Moriarty in Sherlock, played by Andrew Scott, has been present for only half an episode, but in that short time he has proven that he is a perfect foe for Sherlock, and I can’t wait to see how their battle of wits develops during the second season.

*END SPOILER ALERT* 

Hopefully we will finish the second season before Christmas so that I can watch at least one of the two Netflix originals during my vacation. I viewed the episode titles on my Netflix menu, and with the season finale being The Reichenbach Fall, I know exactly what that means. Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have delivered a great show so far, and I know that however they choose to incorporate that iconic Holmes and Moriarty moment it will be done well.

To my knowledge Elementary hasn’t used that storyline yet, but I am sure that if, and likely when, they will do Robot Chicken’s version of M. Night Shyamalan and jump out and proclaim, “WHAT A TWIST!”
A Charlie Bielinski Pop-Ed: Forget the Twists, Benedict Cumberbatch's 'Sherlock' Trumps 'Elementary' Reviewed by Charlie Bielinski on 12/16/2013 Rating: 5

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