Story Pile: Elementary

Oh hey, this happened didn’t it? There was a whole Sherlock Holmes TV series a few years ago that lasted for seven years and went out with pretty good ratings and earned a bunch of praise before it became a footnote in the fanagement story of how fans of another Sherlock Holmes story decided to be proactively racist to Lucy Liu of all people?

Hey, why don’t I check that out? Adrienne says it’s good and she’s neat so let’s check it out.

Oh hey, that was pretty cool!

I’ve said, more than a few times, and multiple times this month that Sherlock Holmes is kinda a shithead. That isn’t true, not really. If nothing else, Sherlock Holmes was still somewhat dignified at the time, he was only insufferable when you came at him as a mystic, someone who did believe in the fantastic. Basil Rathbone, for example, played a positively charming Sherlock Holmes, a relatively sweet man who was awkward around children but at least wanted them to do well and was willing to be kind to them.

In most modern Sherlock representations he’s kind of an awful dickhead, usually has some form of neurodivergence, and then he’s an arsehole in some ways that neurotypical people use to represent being neurodivergent and then that tends to make them look like most stereotypes of ‘annoying neurodivergent people.’ The result is that you have representations of neurodivergent people in media that makes them into a trend of rotten jerks who don’t care about their friends and almost the only representation of neurodivergent people in their media type. You know, the constant ‘is it better to be invisible or to be misrepresented’ conundrum.

This Sherlock is a bit different. Don’t get me wrong, part of it is walking a careful line. Clearly, he’s neurodivergent; at episode one, we already know that he’s had a break, gone on a drug bender, gone into rehab, and escaped a day before he’s due to be discharged. The show will dance around diagnosing him but at a certain point when you’re presenting a character showing things like being overwhelmed with sensory processing problems, who takes in tons of data and is really terrible at recognising social cues, you’re kind of just making the case then denying it is what it is. Plus, he’s got one of the most overwhelmingly common traits of autistic people, which is loudly asserting he’s probably neurotypical in completely unconvincing ways.

Thing is, this guy’s… nice?

Oh, sure, yeah, he does Sherlock things – things that are so tied to the archetype that I can refer to them as a Sherlock Scan or Sherlockian Observation and a lot of people can just go ‘oh, right, like Sherlock Holmes.’ But sometimes he’s nice. Or he’s trying to be nice. But this Sherlock is vulnerable. A hyperfocus session is interrupted by him falling asleep. Early attempts to probe for information resulted in failure — and while he pretends it was intentional, he eventually admits that it’s not, that he was winging it, and trying to ensure he seems like he’s in charge, like he’s in control. It’s not like this guy is single-handedly killing ISIS with a sword.

I think part of why it gets to do that is because of how they changed Watson and quietly how they just added women to the story. Joan Watson doesn’t just map directly from Jon Watson; she’s not a veteran of one of the many wars in Afghanistan, she’s not a combat expert, but she’s also not reliant on Sherlock. She becomes a component of his schemes with deft speed and her primary focus in the early season is on the specific question of who she serves?

Watson can be a lot of things. A handy explainer for the audience, as in many of the earlier versions. A mawkish queerbaiting shiptease, as in Sherlock. A dick who still doesn’t deserve the active problem of Sherlock, as in Guy Ritchie’s versions. What he rarely gets to be is a woman, and when a main character who you’re meant to sympathise with is a woman, there’s a whole bunch of stuff that becomes a bit harder to do, and that makes you ask ‘okay, what else can we do?’ Sexually harrassing a woman cast member on the regular is a bit weird. Threatning her and touching her inappropriately? Also a problem, can’t do that without making it real hard to put up with Holmes.

There’s also the way that being a TV series that’s meant to last for a time, you get to do longer-form stories and you have to come up with more stuff for the actors to do so their job isn’t just spinning their wheels. Long form storytelling like this — which Sherlock is really good for, since he short-cuts mystery-of-the-week story structures in a way that police procedurals can’t do without a lot of rights violating — benefits from giving everyone stuff to do, and if you do that, you almost by necessity start trying things that don’t just follow the old patterns.

It’s really refreshing?

I haven’t watched the whole thing. I mean there are a lot of episodes, so I’ve only watched the first season and my reaction to it is: hey, this is pretty good! This is a fun time. That’s kind what I want out of Sherlock these days? Pulp storytelling, a main character who at least isn’t a complete dickwit, and maybe some fun literary references.

It might all go to pieces later, but considering how much bad Sherlock media there is out there, Sherlock media that resists even the presence of things like ‘women,’ in the name of tradition, I’m honestly pretty happy with just ‘a fun time for a season.’

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