It’s no secret that I have a deep and abiding love for flawed, damaged characters. However, creating the perfect flawed characters invites flirtation with risk. Such characters tread a perilous line between likability and utter loathing.
For instance, at one point I really liked the USA series Monk. But after a while, his flaws descended into full-scale buffoonery. His lack of consideration for his assistant, Natalie, made me loathe the character. His many phobias went from interesting tics that he needed to conquer into painfully endless gags that stopped being funny about five seconds into the scene.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I gave the CBS drama Elementary a try. It was a modern take on the famous detective Sherlock Holmes, set in New York City. A drug-addicted detective with a quirky personality and the tendency to be abrupt is exactly the kind of character that is likely to prompt deep loathing. (The very reason I’ve never liked House.)
Sherlock’s behavior in the initial episode or two made me doubt whether I could tolerate his behavior each week. But the cases were complicated, with unexpected twists. That brought me back until something magical happened. I grew fond of both Sherlock and Joan Watson (portrayed by Lucy Liu).
The writers on Elementary have been masterful at demonstrating the development of the character over the course of three seasons. And Jonny Lee Miller’s portrayal of the character has been nothing short of brilliant.
Early on we learn that Sherlock was a star consultant for Scotland Yard, but fell out of favor after descending into a drug habit following the murder of the woman he loved (another great twist). His father–a man who has always remained distant from his son and has never been seen on the show–forces him into rehab in New York City. When he gets out of rehab, he starts consulting with the NYPD. However, his father hires a sober companion to live with him–Watson, who was formerly a doctor.
In the beginning, their relationship is fragile, antagonistic. He doesn’t want her there and she is simply doing the job she was hired to do. However, as Sherlock discovers that Watson’s medical background and natural powers of observation are beneficial to his investigations, he begins to train her to be a detective.
Dr. Joan Watson (portrayed by Lucy Liu) was once a promising surgeon. However, when she lost a patient, she also lost her confidence and her medical license. Watson finds solace in serving as a companion to recovering addicts, despite the fact that her family and friends believe she’s retreating from her life out of fear.
Sherlock and Watson are both damaged characters with tragic pasts that drive their choices. Yet, over the course of the first season we watched the growth of both characters and the evolution of their complicated relationship.
Watson’s admiration for Sherlock’s skills as an investigator grew and she learned to understand him a bit more, even as she tried to help him learn how to deal with others in a less brusque manner. Holmes’s growing recognition of Joan Watson’s unique abilities cause him to admire her. But he also begins to recognize the benefits of having a companion in his life. Slowly, but surely, his loathing for her turns to tolerance and then caring.
Because the writers have done such a wonderful job of showing Sherlock’s development over the past three seasons, we understand the great impact of even the smallest gestures. Watching the growth of Sherlock’s character each week and the development of his relationship with Watson and Detective Marcus Bell–with whom he also once had a contentious relationship–is truly a thing of beauty.
Have you seen Elementary? Love it or hate it? Who are your favorite damaged characters and why?
Photos courtesy of CBS.