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CBS’s ‘Elementary’ is Back to Break New Ground

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October 3, 2013

Last week, season two of CBS’s number one drama, Elementary, premiered. I, of course, was sitting attentively on my sofa, blanket around my shoulders and snacks in my hands, ready to greet one of the best, most progressive, and aggressively pro-women television programs I have ever seen.

I have seen a lot of praise for shows like Teen Wolf and Orange is the New Black that my friends Katherine and Nick have both written on respectively. These shows have taken a lot of really positive steps forward for sex positivity, consent education, and diversity. Elementary, while having done these as well, has not gotten as much recognition and I would personally like to bring attention to the wonderfully written and acted TV show.

Elementary is a modern revamp of the traditional Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set in New York. Our roguish anti hero Sherlock Holmes is teamed up with good old Joan Watson.

For all of you who are not familiar with the original Sherlock Holmes series, this might not seem like a big deal, but it is.  Not only is switching one of the most beloved characters from male to female a daring risk, but it is  also a very large step forward for social justice.

The decision to change the classic “John Watson” character,  Holmes’ right hand man and chronicler, to “Joan Watson,” a female addiction specialist sent by Holmes’ father to help with his rehabilitation, was one that originally drew much push back from fans of the already popular BBC’s Sherlock. More disagreement was expressed with it was revealed that Sherlock’s companion would be played by Asian American actress Lucy Liu. Since the show’s premiere in November of 2012, the writers, producers, and actors have been able to create a very sophisticated vehicle to foster discussion about the world we live in.

Joan is an intelligent woman, loves baseball, used to be a surgeon, loves high heels, and will be quick to bring to light the problematic behavior of her ward and eventual friend, Sherlock Holmes. On more than one occasion Joan has verbally expressed that the behavior of certain male characters was misogynistic. The visibility of such a relatable female character on a major network has a phenomenal impact, and that she is a woman of color only serves to impress me more.

And Joan is just the first incident of social progressivism on the show.

In the classic Conan Doyle’s series, the character of Mrs. Hudson was Holmes’ landlady, who liked the home to be kept tidy (something Holmes was not to keen on) and was a good cook. In contrast, Elementary’s “Miss Hudson” is an transgender woman who is  an expert in Ancient Greek and who eventually becomes Holmes’ live-in maid. This new adaptation of Miss Hudson, played by  transgender actress Candis Cayne,  challenged the cisgender binary that completely dominates the film and television industry. Her character’s gender was never once questioned or challenged, her pronouns were never once confused; her gender was neither the butt of the joke nor the center of the episode.

Miss Hudson’s character was not some token cliché for Elementary to tote around. But neither was she a mirror of any other female character on the show. While Joan goes through the season with no problems being single, Miss Hudson is not in that same place. She has relationship troubles and is soft spoken and unimposing and it is refreshing to see a variety of women on screen interacting with one another without competing against one another.

Candis Cayne’s character will be a recurring one in the series and I am very excited to see her career progress from already successful to recognizable star.

Like Watson, another one of Conan Doyle’s male characters was reframed  as a female character: Holmes’ arch nemesis, “Professor James Moriarty.” However, the “death” of this male character was also the  revival of a character thought to be long lost: “Irene Adler.” Adler was one of the most notable female character in the original series, and the apple of Holmes’ eye that suddenly disappeared, never to be seen or heard from again.  It was revealed in the finale of season one that the recently discovered and very alive Irene Adler was Moriarty, who, in the original series, was presumed dead along with Holmes in an epic fight.  Like the introduction of Miss Hudson, the reveal of “Irene” Moriarty challenges the paradigm “Professor James Moriarty” that has been formed over the past 120 years. Described multiple times as a “criminal mastermind” and the “Napoleon of crime”, the fact that Elementary writers made Moriarty a woman is incredibly significant.

Natalie Dormer’s Moriarty is not, in anyway objectively inferior. She is a powerful, strong, and quite intimidating mastermind. She is not driven by revenge or lust for a man. Moriarty is driven by a desire for power, just as the character always has been. The consistency in “Irene” Moriarty’s presentation in versus the presentation of James Moriarty is an incredibly brilliant. While changing the gender of the character they did not warp the personality to make her seem daintier or less independent.

All the while exuding an aura of power and absolute mercilessness she remains incredibly feminine. She is not degraded by her gender or her open sexuality.

I look forward to the further development of Moriarty’s character. Elementary has never disappointed me in being socially conscious, dramatic, and undeniably good.

They have paved the way, as the network’s number one show, for other programs to follow suit and challenge the status-quo and become more inclusive and representative of the audience it is reaching. Personally, I am extremely excited to see what the writers have in store for us in season two and what new social progress will be made.

Bravo, Elementary!


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