Since Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books first saw print in 1887, some seventy thespians have played Sherlock Holmes in some 200 films. In fact, Guinness Book of World Records lists Sherlock as the ‘most-portrayed movie character.’
The 2012 reimagining of this classic character, along with Dr. John Watson, in the television series Elementary is audacious and even impertinent. You can almost picture a man with a pipe exclaiming “Very American indeed.”
The first twist at the onset is that the still very British Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) is not the upstanding man we know. He had just completed treatment for a cocaïne addiction, alcohol addiction, heroin addiction, opiate addiction, and who know what else. The rehab facility as with the rest of the story is set in New York City.
The second and perhaps more unexpected tweak to the iconic literati extravaganza is that Dr. JH Watson is impressively played by none other than Lucy Liu. Yes, a woman.
Dr. Joan Watson is a surgeon who was charged with malpractice after she was unsuccessful in saving a patient’s life. This experience broke her for some reason and she was recruited by Sherlock’s clearly well-to-do father as a sober companion to the eccentric erudite in the lead role.
Being supposedly Sherlock’s number two, it is difficult to say that this version of Dr. Watson is not the show’s main pivot. This would further anger devotees of Doyle’s original masterpiece. However, since nobody has shown quite this level of gumption in these characters’ more than 100 years in history, let’s just be honest. At the risk of further incurring the wrath of the devotees of the original literature, this Dr. Watson simply is…
Stroke of Genius
It was a stroke of — Dare I say? — Holmes-like genius for Lucy to be cast in this unique rendering. From Ally McBeal to Kill Bill to Charlie’s Angels, this accordion-playing bombshell has always delivered the goods when it comes to depicting stand out characters. So she is perfect to play the backburner persona who just can’t help but shine.
But were the two characters able to pack a punch? In two words, Yes, Yes!
This is all thanks to writer-creator Robert Doherty. He had already been part of supernatural drama series Medium and the never-ending space series Star Trek: Voyager. However, Elementary was his first time at the helm.
And Doherty came with all his propellers fired up. Elementary characters were well-thought of and fully developed from the get-go. Sherlock and Joan in particular never showed any awkward moments.
As early as Season 1, the storyline of Dr. Watson as the sober companion had been exhausted. So her contract was not renewed by Sherlock’s father. Not surprisingly, she kept that a secret. She stayed on despite this. As Sherlock had observed early on, she was energized by the work. Unknown to Sherlock (She could only hope), Joan was also entranced by the intricacies of the savant and his mind-boggling powers of deduction.
When Sherlock reveals that he had known all that Watson was staying with him without any kind of compensation, he proposes to remedy the situation. The way the word ‘proposal’ was brandished about was a not-so-subtle attempt to titillate the “will they-won’t they” watchers. (More on that later.)
However, Sherlock only set the parameters of the next level in their ‘relationship.’ And that was that they partner as consultants for the NYPD.
It turns out that after studying medicine for a decade, Joan would much rather be a detective. Auspiciously, she is good at it. She is a surgeon, after all. They are the most revered of all medical practitioners. She herself is meticulous and fast on her feet.
As for taking drugs, Sherlock had already implied, that he only took them to boost his brain powers for him to be able to do the crime-solving that he enjoyed. By the time Joan came into his life, Sherlock had already decided that he was getting his fix of happy chemicals (serotonin, dopamine, opiates) from risqué sex.
Aside from his wonderful take on archetypal characters, Doherty also came to Elementary with a truckload of backstories that he dangled but never really fully resolved.
These included Joan’s failed medical career and Sherlock’s addictions, idiosyncrasies, interests, and talents. Not to mention their two sets of families. And for the enthusiasts of the original series, other characters were also resurrected now and then, although their development was understandably not subpar compared to the leads.
Another great departure from the Doyle canon was Jamie Moriarty, James from the novels. Although Natalie Dormer was amazing, bringing another female to play another male character felt like overkill. And yet there it was. And since Doyle never really killed off Moriarty with finality, you should expect to see this character again.
The other tweaks from one episode, even from one season to the next are tiny, even unnoticeable. But these are the best kind. Writers do not stray so far from the formula especially now that Sherlock and particularly Watson have become acceptable.
Dr. Watson in the Spotlight
This September 2018, Season 6 of Elementary sees Watson taking a more active role in their crime-solving endeavors as Sherlock becomes very ill. It should also be interesting how they will depict medicating the addict without it being romanticized for real addicts out there.
Doherty and his symphony of other like-minded writer-producers will surely be put to the test. Liz Friedman, who also later came to direct a few episodes, had just come from her stint in the most popular medical drama House but also helped pen Xena: Warrior Princess from a decade before. Craig Sweeny came from Medium, and scores of others.
So far, Doherty’s best writing decision is to not give in to the romantic chemistry that can sometimes be felt from the two leads. While it would surely be satisfying, it would not really last. And Elementary would be in grave danger of graduating without honors.
The author, Patrick Bailey, is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them.