“A departure from many other long-running crime procedurals, Elementary deliberately avoids tired tropes.”
Episodes Reviewed: Seasons 1-5
Creator: Robert Doherty 👨🏼🇺🇸
Directors: 23 ♂︎ and 7 ♀︎ (including 6 POC, Lucy Liu among them)
Writers: Based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 👨🏼🇬🇧, TV scripts by Robert Doherty 👨🏼🇺🇸 (120 eps), Jeffrey Paul King 👨🏼🇺🇸 (29 eps), Kelly Wheeler 👩🏼🇺🇸 (25 eps), Jason Tracey 👨🏼🇺🇸 (20 eps) and various (16 ♂︎ and 7 ♀︎, including 1 🌈 and 1 WOC)
Reviewed by Mimi 👩🏻🇺🇸
Like its BBC counterpart Sherlock, the CBS drama Elementary offers a modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective stories. Relocated to New York City, Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) serves as a consultant for the NYPD. But probably the most notable change in this iteration is the choice to cast a woman of color in the role of Holmes’ associate, Dr. Watson, played by Lucy Liu. Additionally, Elementary refits Doyle’s source material as a crime procedural and, within the confines of the genre, manages to upend many of the usual clichés.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
As Joan Watson, Liu plays a sober companion hired by Sherlock’s wealthy father to help with his recovery from drug addiction. Accompanying him on cases, she eventually makes the leap to apprenticing with the private detective before becoming his partner. Although she starts out as a caretaker in the early stages of their relationship, the writing makes clear that Joan is not without her own baggage. Liu described her character as such: “Joan Watson is somebody who, like Sherlock, is also quite damaged and has a little bit of a fragile history. We're starting to piece her together... she's her own puzzle.” As a former surgeon who left behind an illustrious career, and as a woman who chooses to remain single, Joan proves she’s not only a multi-dimensional character but also a woman with real agency.
The dynamic between the male and female leads feels particularly unique in that it’s completely free of romance. In “One Watson, One Holmes” (Season 3, Episode 19), Sherlock offers a clear-eyed summation of what they mean to each other: “Friendship, I've come to believe, is most accurately defined as two people moving towards the best aspects of one another. It is a relationship of mutual benefit, mutual gain.” And of mutual respect. Miller’s Holmes and Liu’s Watson join forces as equals, challenging each other to grow emotionally and psychologically throughout the series.
Outside of Joan, however, there aren’t many recurring female characters. In Season 1, we do get a villain whose gender is flipped from the canon. And Season 3 introduces us to Kitty Winter (Ophelia Lovibond), Sherlock’s new protégé. The series could definitely introduce more supporting roles featuring women who aren’t merely girlfriends or wives.
Elementary explains Joan Watson’s last name as a product of her mother’s remarriage. This clever backstory allows for an Asian American actor to step into the traditionally white role. Nor does the show completely erase her ethnicity, either. For example, Joan can speak Mandarin, but like many assimilated children of immigrants, she speaks English with her Chinese mother. So while her race is acknowledged, her character is also allowed her own unique Asian American experience.
This nuanced treatment of POC characters extends throughout the show, from series regular Jon Michael Hill as Detective Marcus Bell to the late Nelsan Ellis’ portrayal of a reformed gang member Shinwell Johnson in Seasons 5 and 6. Another interesting aside: Joan’s love interest in Season 3 is played by British Indian actor Raza Jaffrey, providing an interethnic pairing we don’t see too often on television. Even one-off characters, who exist primarily in the service of advancing the plotlines of episodic cases, tend to be cast diversely. A departure from many other long-running crime procedurals, Elementary deliberately avoids tired tropes, such as non-white characters being forced to speak with exaggerated accents in order to reinforce their otherness.
Season 1 made an effort to introduce LGBTQ characters, namely in Ms. Hudson, played by a well-known transgender actress, Candis Cayne. Sadly, she appears only in three episodes, which feels like a missed opportunity, especially considering the character’s canonical importance. Other minor characters who happen to be gay or are mentioned as having same-sex partners come and go at a fairly regular clip. Although the series does not fail to acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ individuals, it has yet to truly embrace inclusive representation in this arena.
Bonus for Disability: +1.00
While recent film and television adaptations have integrated Sherlock’s drug use into their plots, Elementary goes one step further in addressing his substance abuse as a form of addiction. In fact, Sherlock’s sobriety embodies a core component of the show. Not only does his addiction supply the catalyst for Joan’s involvement in his life, but it is also a driving narrative in the series. We follow Sherlock going to meetings, his struggle to consistently attend meetings, as well as his relationship with his sponsor Alfredo (Ato Essandoh). We also witness Sherlock falling off the wagon and what it’s like to confront triggers. After five seasons, it’s clear that there is no such thing as magically “getting better.” Rather, this is a condition with its ups and downs that he has to accept and treat for as long as he lives.
Mental health issues color Joan’s life, as well. We learn that her father’s schizophrenia contributed to her parents’ divorce. Her ability to provide a support network for Sherlock is all the more touching.
Finally, Sherlock dates a woman with autism in Seasons 4 and 5. Though she’s portrayed somewhat stereotypically in her “awkwardness,” Fiona (Betty Gilpin) and Sherlock share an intellectual connection that seems genuine. It would have been nice to see their relationship fleshed out beyond four episodes.
Mediaversity Grade: B+ 4.25/5
Given the limitations of the format, Elementary may not be entirely groundbreaking. But it does successfully overcome the misogyny and racism typically associated with crime shows. There are few lingering shots fetishizing women’s corpses, and people of color function as more than tokenist set dressing. At the very least, the series may have helped propel Liu’s career as a director (she has subsequently directed an episode of Luke Cage), so more WOC getting behind the camera is certainly something to cheer for.