When it comes to tv dramas, sometimes I come a bit late to the party. Take Person of Interest, for example. I watched the pilot, I couldn’t connect with it, so I never watched another episode. Then, through the enthusiastic urgings of my good friends Pete and Elaine, I gave it another go. And boing! I loved it. I was hooked. That can happen. You’re in the wrong frame of mind, or whatever, the first time you encounter a story. But then you go back to it later and something’s changed and the fit is right, when it wasn’t before.
The same thing’s happened with me and Elementary, except I never even watched the pilot before rejecting it. Confession time: I’m not an actual Sherlock Holmes fan, as such. I love the Ritchie films because it’s Robert Downey Jnr and Jude Law and they have such wit and style. I love the current BBC imagining because Cumberbatch and Ferguson are so great – but if there wasn’t a convoluted behind the scenes reason, I never would have watched the first one. But I had no reason to watch Elementary. I’m only passingly familiar with Jonny Lee Miller’s work, and I can’t say I’m a huge Lucy Liu fan, and nothing about the creative team rang any bells so … no incentive. But then Pete and Elaine kept dropping hints about how much they were enjoying it, and I respect their opinions, and then I came across the first season on dvd at a good discount … so I rolled my eyes and bought it.
And you know what? I think it’s great. Okay, I think Miller’s great. It’s a tremendous central performance that makes up for hiccups I see elsewhere in the series – just as, for me, James Spader’s glorious work in The Blacklist atones for the shortfalls I see in that dramatic production.
I’m still working my way through the first season as I write this, but I’ve seen enough now to know I’ll keep watching – until and unless they drive the show into the ditch. And that does happen with some productions, sad to say.
What surprises me most about how much I like Elementary is the fact that I can overlook the central conceit – the gender-bending of a male character into a female character. I’m not a fan of people doing that to other people’s creations. If you want a female sleuth, or apprentice sleuth, or whatever, go create your own. Don’t mess about with a character that was created by someone else. Just because there’s no legal impediment doesn’t mean you should do it.
But having said that … I actually do enjoy the shift in the dynamic. At this point I have no idea if they’re intending a detour into romance-land and honestly, I hope they don’t. Once, just once, I’d like to see a deep and truthful friendship between a man and a woman that doesn’t go there. Call me naïve, but I’m someone who believes men and women can be just friends. Unfortunately, I’m still struggling with Liu’s performance. For me, her affect is far too flat and she doesn’t seem terribly different here from other performances of hers I’ve seen. But I get that mileage varies when it comes to things like that.
The other thing I really love about the show is the stark and often brutal honesty in their portrayal of someone recovering from addiction. I think Miller’s work is at its strongest in these moments. He’s brave and raw, with nowhere to hide, and I find it immensely powerful. The scene where Sherlock reveals why he’s so resistant to receiving his one year sobriety chip – immensely moving.
There’s a really solid supporting cast too, which is essential to this kind of drama. Unlike, say, for me – Castle – where the secondary players still aren’t real people, and to almost the same degree The Blacklist, in Elementary I never forget who the second-ranked cast members are and how they fit in. So kudos to the creative team for that achievement.
I’ve read commentary elsewhere that complains about the logic/execution of the crimes in each episode, and I’ve read feminist critiques that claim the show is a hotbed of misogyny. Perhaps there are plot-holes with the crimes. I must say that so far nothing’s really slapped me in the kisser on that score, but it could be I’m just watching it with half my brain shut down. On the misogyny score, though, I do think that’s a load of bollocks.
It’s possible to argue that in positing a story where, yet again, it’s the man who’s the genius/expert and the woman who is his lesser half that the show is contributing to the overall misogyny/sexism of western dramatic storytelling. Certainly a show like Bones, where the most brilliant character is a woman, is something unusual. But I honestly don’t think that – taken on its own merits – Elementary is dismissive of or derogatory towards women.
Joan Watson has agency, she is successful in her own right, and she happens to be on a journey of personal discovery. In changing careers she has willingly put herself in the position of student. I don’t find that demeaning towards her as a woman, I find that brave and exciting and a really great plot point. Not to mention the fact that at no time does Sherlock denigrate her in a sexist fashion. When it comes to intellectual dismissiveness he is portrayed as an equal-opportunity offender. And certainly I think he’s made it clear that he values her enormously as a partner. He says it explicitly: I’m a better detective when you’re around. For Sherlock Holmes that’s about as good as it gets.
Also, it’s a source of delight to me that so many people on the creative/productive team of the show are women. If the producers were all knuckledragging male neanderthals (like some other shows I can think of) then perhaps I’d be complaining. But I think it’s a big mistake to say that women characters on tv can’t be frail and flawed and stupid and wrong and weak, some of the time or even all of the time. Either women are human beings, subject to all of humanity’s failings, or they aren’t. The problem arises when women are only depicted in that light. I mean, if you want to see some truly stomach churning, hair raising misogyny on television, go look at some episodes of Emergency, which was made back in the 70s. You’ll either pass out or start foaming at the mouth – or both.
Provided the quality remains undiminished and the performances continue to engage me emotionally, I will keep watching Elementary. I’m not sure if I’d love it so much if it wasn’t Jonny Lee Miller playing Holmes – but luckily, I won’t have to find out.
So, over to you. Do you watch Elementary? If you do, what do you love about it? Wish they’d change? Hope they never change? Do you agree with my thoughts/ Disagree? Have at it! And what other shows in the crime genre do you love?