When Elementary debuted in the fall of 2012, it got two things exactly right: the first was Joan Watson; the second was Sherlock Holmes.
The show’s conceit – transplanting the Holmes story to modern New York City, with a woman playing the role of Watson – could easily have made it a forgettable gimmick, if it hadn’t been cast with exactly the right lead actors. But Elementary hit the bullseye twice, and Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller have carried the show through two successful seasons, based almost entirely on their interpersonal chemistry.
I mentioned Joan/Liu first, because her character is the show’s most notable addition to the Holmes mythos. (The show is even named after her, more or less. Using the title My Dear Watson would have created a different set of expectations, but that’s certainly what our minds are supposed to autocomplete.) If Joan didn’t work, Elementary wouldn’t work, and before it ever aired, people speculated that it wouldn’t.
There were a lot of reasons given for this, from Holmes fan purism (laced in some unfortunate cases with not-even-thinly-disguised sexism), to the assumption that Sherlock and Joan would inevitably become a romantic pairing, to worries that viewers would get a weekly dose of a male genius explaining things to a female sidekick (and a female sidekick of color, at that) who struggled to keep up with his intellect.
The last concern, to me, was a particularly worrying one. Fortunately, it was evident from the outset that this would not be the case with Joan. Lucy Liu is a mature, established actress, with a long resume of playing characters who are often physically formidable, sometimes unapologetically bitchy. Joan is a different kind of character for Liu: a woman of finesse rather than force, a caring professional who left her career as a surgeon to work as a companion and counselor to recovering drug addicts. Liu plays Joan with a soft voice, a ready smile, and a kindness that is easy to believe in. But never for a moment does she come across as a pushover. Her intelligence is unmistakable, and she never lets Sherlock bully her with his problematic genius. Bad guys occasionally take Joan’s kindness for weakness, but they don’t make the same mistake twice.
Joan’s steady resilience finds its counterpoint in the boyish, twitchy Sherlock. Jonny Lee Miller might be giving the most underappreciated performance on TV right now. I know it’s my favorite thing to watch, week in and week out. Miller’s work is brilliantly weird — taking advantage of the close-up physicality television acting allows — without being either showy or offputting. This Sherlock’s eccentricities come across as the methods that a very lonely person, who has trouble navigating the world of human relationships, has developed in order to make it from day to day. Placed in context of the life of a recovering addict, the stakes for Sherlock and those around him become even higher. Joan Watson, in this story, is there not to relate Sherlock’s adventures to the world, but to connect Sherlock to a larger world of human relationships.
It’s been a fascinating dynamic to watch, especially because the show (so far) hasn’t gone down the path of emphasizing “unresolved sexual tension,” the expected default in a relationship between an opposite sex pair of (so far exclusively shown to be) heterosexual. Over the course of Season One, Joan worked through her role as Sherlock’s live-in companion, but the entire point of the role was for Sherlock to grow to the point where he didn’t need her and could live independently.
With this interplay going on, it didn’t even matter much when the cases they were investigating were not particularly interesting or well-constructed. The show brought in some great guest stars like Ato Essandoh as Sherlock’s AA sponsor Alfredo and Natalie Dormer as a memorable antagonist, but Elementary‘s first season mostly got by on the endearing chemistry of the two leads. Season One ended where it must have felt like it should: Sherlock no longer needed a companion, but he wanted Joan to stay with him, and Joan wanted to stay and become a detective in her own right.
Season Two, however, never quite got out of the starting gate. Compared to Sherlock’s emotional journey over the course of Season One, Joan’s quest to become a better detective lacks any kind of urgency. That’s partly because, in spite of some strong individual episodes,Elementary just isn’t very good at being a detective show. I suspect that Elementary‘s fans would be happy to watch case-of-the-week competence porn with Joan and Sherlock trading quips and outsmarting everyone, but that only works if the cases themselves are reliably engaging.
The show we’re watching seems less interested in week-to-week procedure. It wants to send somebody on some kind of journey, but no one seems sure what that should be. If the journeying character is going to be Joan, then she needs to be shown wanting or lacking or needing something. Something worth journeying after. But the Joan we’ve seen is so resilient, so fiercely competent that it’s hard to give her any place to go without diminishing the character. It’s a tough dilemma, and one that I relate to as a writer of fiction. Joan is smart and strong and stands up for herself and doesn’t need a man to complete her. She’s also fun to watch and not at all in the least bit boring. But given all that, what stories do you tell with her? Stories require problems to solve, and the most obvious problem to throw at Joan is Sherlock. Then you’ve got a show that’s all about Sherlock’s problems and that’s not what we really want for Joan either.
Season Two never really addressed this issue, but it did distract from it a bit by introducing Rhys Ifans as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. Mycroft and Joan fell for each other, Mycroft was involved in shady dealings, and there were lots of twists and turns. I could see what the Mycroft storyline was going for – giving Sherlock and Joan stakes in Mycroft’s fate, creating a triangle of love and dysfunction – but all we really got was Mycroft wrecking Joan and Sherlock’s one-on-one chemistry without giving the show a long-term direction.
I think Elementary wants to do well by Joan, and by her relationship with Sherlock. At the same time, what’s good for the characters as people is not necessarily what’s good for the show. As Season Two ended, Joan was moving out to get more space for herself, which is exactly what I would tell Joan to do if she was my friend. But Sherlock obliviously storming into Joan’s bedroom while she is trying to take a nap (she is always trying to take a nap) and then making it up to her later in some weird but endearing way is exactly what makes the show fun to watch.
Elementary could still have a good season 3 if it gets its act together. Take advantage of Joan and Sherlock living apart to expand their worlds. Do more with the criminally wasted Aiden Quinn and Jon Michael Hill as Holmes and Watson’s police counterparts. Find Watson a Mary Morstan (male or female) and let her build a real relationship with someone besides Sherlock. Decide what kind of cases you want to handle (ripped from the headlines? Spy shenanigans? Weird biomedical sci-fi drama like that one with the lady with the missing ear and OH MY GOD WAS THAT CREEPY?) and do a good job with them.
I love Joan and Sherlock. I love them together. I’m just not sure that the show they’re on knows what to do with them. In season 3, I’d like to be proven wrong.