Why Even Loyal Sherlock Fans Should Watch Elementary
Note: This article contains spoilers for previous seasons of Sherlock and Elementary. The new season of Elementary airs Thursday, 30 October 2014.
I admit it. I prefer CBS’s Elementary to BBC’s Sherlock. Yeah, I’ve seen the memes claiming the superiority of Sherlock, and I wonder why Elementary fans aren’t as passionate. To be honest, I know there are certain contributing factors. Sherlock came out first, so its fiercely loyal fandom perceives Elementary as a copycat riding on Sherlock’s coattails. Elementary also takes abundant creative liberties with the canon. It’s set in New York City, rather than London, which irks purist fans. But the deviation that really sets it apart, to much discomfort, or to greatest effect, depending on whom you ask, is the gender swapping.
Lucy Liu plays Watson to Johnny Lee Miller’s Holmes on Elementary. Holmes is a recovering drug addict; Watson is his sober companion. Liu’s Watson is able to see through Holmes’ defense mechanisms, and call him on it as an intimate friend would.
When it was announced that Liu would be playing Watson, fans of Sherlock Holmes resisted. At least one person in the announcement’s comment section was okay with Watson being a woman, but not one that looked like Lucy Liu (pause for eye rolls here). But then what can you expect from the crapshoot that is the comment section of a thing? Some, like I did, feared that Watson would be reduced to Holmes’ love interest. For a female Watson to be a love interest to Holmes, though fascinating, might undermine all the other points of interest a female Watson can bring. What happened instead was something else very miraculous. As great as the chemistry is between Liu and Miller, executive producer Robert Doherty has NO intention to couple them up. The development of the characters as individuals and as part of a team is gradually and fully explored. After Watson has improved as a detective over time, and outsmarted a criminal mastermind, Holmes is in awe of her, not in love. Their relationship is nonetheless, or all the more, moving. In a touching scene, he names a new species of bee after Watson, just as the first one enters the world. The scene is sweet without getting sappy. Him saying the name of the bee and letting it dawn on Watson is all it takes. There is no need for explanations or speeches because it’s all been shown in the development of the season. Don’t get me wrong; the relationship between Martin Freeman’s Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is adorable.
It’s as much a credit to the actors as to the writers that we feel attached to these characters. There’s something pretty exhilerating about Watson’s recovery from his psychosomatic post-war symptoms, aided by Holmes, and how Watson’s military rescue instincts kick in during the climax of “Study in Pink”. When touching scenes arrive, like at Watson’s wedding, there is a bit more sap there and definitely a speech, perhaps to compensate for less development. Sherlock is fun and clever. It just isn’t quite as good, in my opinion, as Elementary. It’s missing something. Just last year, a study by USC Annenberg and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, found that women were underrepresented on television, in addition to being represented in a sexualized manner more than men were.
Feminist writers have pointed out flaws in Sherlock already, and I know what the defense has retorted. Sexist characters and a sexist culture within the show’s universe do not necessarily indicate that a show itself or its creators are sexist – I agree. My argument is that Elementary demonstrates this to be true, but Sherlock does not. In one episode of Elementary, Holmes deduces that something is up with Irene Adler (Natalie Dormer), so he assumes that she must be working for Moriarty. He doesn’t even consider that she could BE Moriarty. He is SHERLOCK HOLMES – clever enough to have seen through all the misleading clues along the way – but he doesn’t. Later, Irene/Moriarty explains that she uses a male proxy for those associates who would have a problem with her gender. So, here we see that the characters are living in a sexist reality, that Holmes himself was perhaps duped only because of sexist bias. But the show itself has two female lead roles that it created via gender swapping. This is important. The producers of Elementary use characters who have a limited view of gender, but do not limit themselves by the gendered parameters of the source material.
In BBC’s Sherlock, sometimes it’s funny when we are all in on the joke that Holmes lacks the sensitivity to treat women, or most people, for that matter, with respect. We can laugh at him for it, but can we accept that most of the women in the show are tropes? Tropes are all right, especially for expediency in storytelling. There are male tropes in the show, too. It’s just that we at least get to see the two lead males be fleshed out. We don’t see women fleshed out, except in a more literal sense when we are introduced to a nude Irene Adler.
And there’s nothing necessarily objectionable about Irene Adler being an unashamed and attractive sex worker. It’s just that she doesn’t get to transcend that identity much. Irene Adler’s cleverness is outshined in the end by her emotional weakness for Holmes. Holmes outsmarts her, and the episode takes women backwards, if possible, from the source material, “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in which Adler’s role is to outsmart Holmes to his great surprise. It’s backwards, not because all women must necessarily be shown to be smarter than men, but because a woman’s role has, as is all too common, been reduced to that of love interest. Yes, of course, the source material is about Holmes and Watson, and the other roles are their satellites. But it’s all the more reason to commend a show like Elementary for gender swapping canonically male lead roles to make up for the underrepresentation of women in television and other media.
I must, in fairness, acknowledge Sherlock’s third season arrival of Mary Morstan in the form of Amanda Abbington. Her role as Watson’s significant other is magnificent because she defies gender norms in meaningful ways. Her character is compelling. In a mere three episodes, relationships have become more real, more complex, and the show is more surprising.
Elementary does a lot of things right for women and a few for other underrepresented groups. Transgender actress Candis Cayne plays a transgender Ms. Hudson. Black male actors are developed somewhat as they bond with Holmes. His AA sponsor, Alfredo (Ato Essandoh), has exactly the patient wisdom Holmes needs in a sponsor, shares Holmes’ love of cracking security systems, and even helps out on some cases. Holmes admires Detective Marcus Bell (Jon Michael Hill) and says he refers to most other detectives as “Not Bell.” But Bell’s brother is an ex-convict, and most of the black and/or minority characters play former criminals, drug addicts, or otherwise the equivalent of 19th century London’s street urchins. Naturally there is an improvement over the obvious prejudice in the books, but couldn’t more be done? Yes, of course. It needs to be. Nonetheless, Robert Doherty makes it look easy to gender swap characters the right way. This show is worth a watch, and worth supporting as it airs its third season this fall.
Estella Ramirez earned her BA in Psychology with a minor in Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University. She earned her MFA in Poetry at Texas State University, while a writing instructor there. Now a private tutor, she works on her poetry manuscript as well as musical projects. Her writing can also be found at The Toast.