Elementary and the Case of the Disappearing Characters

I don’t care all that much about Mycroft Holmes on Elementary. That is, I don’t care about him as a main character. He’s a good supporting character, with the potential to be great – he’s interesting for the reactions he elicits from the protagonists, and for what those reactions tell us about them. I like Rhys Ifans and his believably prickly-fond sibling chemistry with Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock. And if he’d been around a little more this season, I might even care about him more as a main character.

But he hasn’t been around all that much, and a decent portion of his appearances has been involved in this “slept with Watson off-screen” silliness. (Elementary, please give Joan Watson something to do. Please. I beg you. That’s a separate, but related, issue.) So, while I trust that there are more plotcakes to come this week as Elementary ramps up to its second season finale, the big reveal last week about Mycroft? Ok, whatever. I guess I admire the technical misdirection, but I found it hard to care. I wasn’t shocked – or, frankly, interested – nearly as much as the episode seemed to think I should be, only because I don’t think he’s been shown to be that important a character. He’s certainly no Irene/Moriarty.

It’s a weirdly common situation for Elementary, which has had some problems sustaining plotlines and recurring supporting characters this season. There was a promising middle stretch, when it seemed like the police department’s widespread resentment of our heroes, along with Holmes’ culpability in getting Detective Bell shot, were building to a larger, game-changing crisis situation. And then … that all sort of fizzled. And sure, I guess the writers could have been laying the groundwork for some sort of shocking dramatic showdowns in the next couple of episodes, but even if that happens at this point, I’m just not sure how much I’ll care.

The main problem is that the show seems to be getting wrong what it did mostly right last season. (West Wing comparison coming up ahead.)

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Aaron Sorkin’s Woman-on-Woman Problem

It’s Jane Fonda’s network CEO dismissing Michele Bachmann as “a hairdo.”

It’s Emily Mortimer praising Alison Pill by offering to take her shopping.

It’s Emily Mortimer offering Olivia Munn a job, having Olivia Munn demure because there are more talented men out there, and having Emily press her case with, “The thing is, they won’t have your legs.”

Women don’t talk to each other this way at work. We don’t bring up each other’s cute shoes on deadline. We don’t decline job offers by calling ourselves unqualified. We don’t tell each other directly, “You’re only getting this job because you’re hot.”

We may think that, we may bitch about it to our friends, we certainly realize that being hot helps - and we certainly don’t have to spell it out for each other. We can be dismissive of Michele Bachmann or interested in each other’s cute work outfits or resentful and catty when the thinner, prettier, blonder woman gets the promotion. That happens. It doesn’t happen like this.

I admit, this is just a sliver of the Aaron-Sorkin-misogynist narrative that came roaring back with The Newsroom, and honestly, it’s not the most important part of it. It’s not the thing that bothered me or most reviewers the most in the first three episodes — it’s hard to get worked up about Sorkin flunking the spirit of the Bechdel test when he’s got his veteran war correspondent melting into a puddle of hysterical-adulterer goo when faced with the deeper mysteries of e-mail, or the passive receptionist being schooled in the Art of Journalism and surviving panic attacks by her all-knowing boss, who also wants to save her from her jerk boyfriend. Sorkin has deep woman problems, and now "Internet Girl" problems, which are all infuriating.

But as a longtime watcher of his work, and someone who still holds out a faint hope for The Newsroom to get better, one of the most jarring problems with the show is how its women speak to and about other women. (Should Jane Fonda really dismiss Michele Bachmann as a hairdo in an election cycle that also gave us the follicle wonders of Ricks Perry and Santorum?)

It’s an irritating tone-deafness from Sorkin, who otherwise can have a wonderful ear for banter and dialogue. His movies and television shows are all sound, words being thrown back and forth in friendly argument or righteous argument or romantic argument. The latter two are more on display so far in The Newsroom, which puts it at a disadvantage - Sports Night and The West Wing, at their best, reveled in the art of the friendly argument between smart people who respected each other. Most of the time those people were men, because it’s Sorkin and that’s who he’s comfortable writing. And when those people are women, like Dana and Natalie on Sports Night, 95% of the time they were talking about their romantic woes and not their work woes.

That’s ultimately what disappoints me the most. Sorkin’s never going to write a romantic relationship that I take seriously, and I’m not expecting him to take lessons from Lena Dunham or Shonda Rhimes or Amy Sherman-Palladino anytime soon. But he cares about workplace drama in a more intellectual, more idealized way than most television writers do, and he devotes most of his shows to the rhythms and relationships of working in an office, in the media business, surrounded by people who are passionate about their jobs. How women talk to each other and work with each other could be and should be a big part of that.

I’m still disappointed with him for The West Wing, for creating the character of C.J. Cregg and having her navigate the boys-club of the Bartlet administration without giving her a female professional equal to commiserate with - not just to have another powerful woman character in the show, but because I was a lot more interested than Sorkin was in how C.J. dealt with being regularly kept out of the White House’s most important discussions. He nodded at the problems for her as the most senior female aide, but wasn’t particularly interested in exploring them. Maureen Ryan pointed out a similar problem with the Mortimer-Munn “legs” discussion in last week’s Newsroom:

This is not news to anyone—the idea that, even more than men, women in broadcast news are judged on their looks. But what was really missing from that scene was a sense of camaraderie between women who recognize this unfortunate truth with a sense of rueful regret. That wasn’t the vibe at all.

Sorkin has written a television show about television news, where the professional stakes for women are amplified by an environment that prizes their physical appearance. I’d love to see him take his own set-up seriously.