By Guest Contributor Kendra James
Here’s the thing about Elementary: whether or not you like it isn’t going to have everything to do with Lucy Liu’s playing Dr. Watson.
It would be a disservice to Liu to rave about the show just because she’s in it. So let’s keep it real: when it comes down to it this show is nothing more than your average CBS procedural. That said, I like CBS procedurals, and I also happen to like Sherlock Holmes adaptations, so I can easily give you a few reasons why the pilot of Elementary is worth checking out on CBS.com.
1. Chill out. Watson’s being portrayed by an Asian woman doesn’t change the character of Watson as much as you’ve convinced yourself it does. Both Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and Joan keep their traditionally adapted traits and personalities. Sherlock remains the standoffish (a-holeish, if you will) observant genius, while Watson is the former doctor and the only one who seems to be able to tolerate Sherlock’s abrasive mannerisms. They both remain highly educated and of an equal social status, if the clues dropped in the pilot are to be believed. If anything, the changes to Watson’s race and gender work to make certain scenes more poignant. Particularly, I was struck by a moment late in the episode where Sherlock delivers a direct, sincere apology to Joan for the way he’s treated her over the past hour. A white male who acknowledges his poor treatment of a woman of color? That’s more of a novelty on television than a female Watson.
2. Elementary’s New York City actually looks like New York City. This isn’t the whitewashed New York of How I Met Your Mother or 2 Broke Girl’s stereotyped city. Joan and Sherlock walk around an appropriately diverse city where they’re not just sandwiched between other minorities on subways, but also interact with them on a continuous professional level (check out Manny Perez as Detective Abreu, who will soon be joined by Anika Noni Rose). Personally, I’ve never understood why CBS can “get” gender and racial diversity when it comes to their procedural shows but manages to fail time and time again in the sitcom department.
3. The original Sherlock Holmes novels employ tropes and Chinese stereotypes that were, perhaps, typical of the time. Either way, centered mostly around opium dens, the lives of Chinese immigrants in London were portrayed through a short racist lens. Modern adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels seem to have problems with this as well. Whether the producers of the show realize it or not, casting a Chinese-American woman as one of the series’ lead characters, washing Watson’s hands clean of any drug use or connection immediately in the pilot, and proceeding to write her as a fully fleshed-out person is too wonderful of an ironic public kiss-off to the problematic source material for me to not watch each and every week.
4. Overall, it’s familiar and–when you’re promoting a cast of diverse faces–that can be a good thing. The procedural is a tried-and-true formula that CBS consistently wins the night with (consider NCIS’ 20.16 million viewer premiere). In five years Elementary will be that syndicated show on TNT that you can jump into at a moment’s notice in the middle of Season 2.
I plead with the show’s naysayers (mostly pressed Sherlock fans, but who’s counting?) to consider what the show is, and then ask themselves the following questions: Do you like CBS procedurals? Do you like Criminal Minds, NCIS, Hawaii Five-0, or any one of the six million CSIs? Do you like Big-Bads-Of-The-Week and slightly-above-average season-long story arcs? Do you not take issue with the standard beautiful-woman-in-peril-and-lots-of-blood storylines that CBS procedurals see as their bread and butter?
If you answered “ye’s to more than one of those questions, then it’s likely that you’ll enjoy casually viewing Elementary. If not, well, then this just isn’t the show for you, and that’s fine. But it’s not Lucy Liu’s fault.