How Elementary managed to avoid the Moriarty problem with its latest villain

elementary season 6 michael desmond harrington sherlock holmes jonny lee miller moriarty natalie dormer andrew scott robert doherty addiction cbs

Introduced in the season 6 premier, Michael (Desmond Harrington) is a recovering addict much like Holmes. Michael credits Holmes with the success of his recovery, telling him “you said [at a meeting] you were made for one thing, and being away from it made staying sober almost impossible, but when […] you went back to it, that made all the difference. So, I actually decided to do the same thing, you know, focus on my work, use it to get better […] I worked hard, but, uh it started with you.”

In marked contrast to Holmes, though, the work that helps keep Michael sober is murder; where Holmes uses his detective work as a coping mechanism, Michael is a serial killer with similar struggles and compulsions. It’s a clever conceit, drawing obvious parallels between the two, positioning Michael as a mirror of Holmes in broadly the same way Moriarty has been in the past; indeed, it wouldn’t actually be that surprising to learn that this character is drawn from ideas at one stage considered for Elementary’s version of Moriarty. Notably, though, where the parallels between Holmes and Moriarty are typically drawn from their occupations – the consulting detective and the consulting criminal – the ones between Holmes and Michael are much more personal in nature. It’s an approach that offers potential for some compelling character drama, again an opportunity for Elementary to further explore Holmes’ sobriety.

So! Moriarty. This article kinda relies a lot on a thing I basically just sorta made up while I was trying to work out how to talk about the thing I wanted to talk about (Desmond Harrington‘s Michael, a new character introduced in Elementary season 6), so I should probably unpack that a little bit.

Basically, the “Moriarty Problem”, such that I’ve defined it, talks about the struggle that adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories face when, after having offered their take on Moriarty (arguably the most famous literary villain ever), they have to move on to a new villain – the problem being the struggle to put forward a character that’s equally as impactful or memorable as their take on Moriarty.

Certainly, if we limit our pool to Elementary and Sherlock, both shows struggled; I liked Magnussen, though admittedly was less sure about Eurus, though I don’t think it’s difficult to argue that Andrew Scott‘s Moriarty overshadowed them both. The same is true with Elementary, where none of the subsequent villains have had the same impact as Natalie Dormer‘s Moriarty (though you can make the reasonable argument that they didn’t try to have villains in the same way, I suppose).

So, what this article talks about is the way in which Elementary found a way to avoid that problem with its latest villain character, Michael. Admittedly you could probably argue that what they do, and the point I talk around making, is essentially just to do an alternate take on the basic idea of Moriarty within the confines of their show.

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Sherlock vs Elementary

elementary vs sherlock benedict cumberbatch johnny lee miller lucy liu martin freeman johnlock steven moffat mark gatiss robert doherty comparison better

Elementary is better than Sherlock.

It’s kinda weird to be saying that, especially considering what pretty much everyone thought when it was announced.

Sherlock had had a very successful first season, everyone was amazed at how brilliant it was, and everyone was applauding Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss, Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman – pretty much everyone who was connected to the production really. “Why, it’s so original and innovative to have Sherlock Holmes set in the modern day!” the people would say.

And then along comes the announcement that an American network is going to be making their own version. Sherlock Holmes in modern-day New York. With a female Watson. “Probably so they can sleep together” the people would say. The whole thing does sound a lot like gimmicky plagiarism really, doesn’t it?  At least at first.

So when I saw Elementary was on, I decided to watch it, mostly out of curiosity. To see how bad it would be, really.

And I was amazed at what I saw. At the minute, I’m about halfway through the first season – I think I’ve reached episode 14 by now? I am totally and completely convinced that Elementary is better than Sherlock. 

A big part of it is probably due to the format of it – half a season of Elementary is equivalent to all of the Sherlock we have at the minute, meaning Elementary has quantity on its side. But it’s also been quite intricately plotted – over just 12 episodes, the Holmes and Watson from Elementary have developed more than their Sherlock counterparts had in the same amount of time. And I have no doubt the Elementary characters are going to develop even more.

I’d also argue that Johnny Lee Miller’s interpretation of Holmes is much more faithful to the Doyle books than Benedict Cumberbatch’s ever has been – whilst that’s not to say that Cumberbatch doesn’t always do brilliantly, Miller is more of a Sherlock Holmes than he is. (That’s probably worth another post someday)

I also think that Elementary has actually been able to perform better than Sherlock because of the different approach to the source material which it took. Rather than adapting famous Holmes stories, Elementary has taken the characters – pretty much as they were, albeit with a few changes to their backstory, and, indeed, gender – and placed them into new settings. This gives it all of that innovation and originality than people lauded Sherlock for, and expected Elementary to lack. (It’s also probably worth noting that Sherlock has only really adapted three of the original stories, meaning that what Elementary does isn’t all that different)

So, that’s why I prefer Elementary over Sherlock. I’ll probably write another post about how the Holmes (and maybe Watson) from Elementary are more faithful to the original stories… sometime next week. And maybe even individual episode reviews, I don’t know.

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