First: of the four recent Holmes variations -- the Guy Ritchie movies with Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, HOUSE with Hugh Laurie and Robert Sean Leonard, SHERLOCK with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and ELEMENTARY with Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu -- the one with the least sexual tension and/or intimation between Homes and Watson (or House and Wilson) is ELEMENTARY. I REALLY appreciate that they are managing to show a heterosexual man and woman who are entirely Platonic friends.
Second: I REALLY like that we appear to be getting further and further away from Jam Watson and his compatriots, Incompetent Lestrade/Gregson/etc. If you're among a bunch of people who couldn't find a fire ant in Texas if they were covered in honey, being the smartest person in the room doesn't mean a lot. But if you're the smartest person in a room full of people who are geniuses, experts, and clever folks in their own right, THAT'S impressive. (Cf. Doc Savage and Buckaroo Banzai, for more examples of this phenomenon.)
In ELEMENTARY, we are also given a Sherlock who respects the people around him, even if he's still a bit of an arrogant jerk. One of my favorite bits so far:
SHERLOCK: They came out of EROC with $33 million in small bills. They loaded their haul onto an ambulance American-made in the late nineties. They haven’t been gone more than an hour.What makes that moment work is that half-second where Sherlock actually is convinced that Watson HAS deduced all that. Because he believes that she's good enough that she COULD. (Also the shoutout to HOUSE in the reference to lupus.)
JOAN: The driver had a lazy eye, the other two men had basketball caps, and one has canine lupus.
[BEAT. Sherlock looks startled.]
See how it feels?
Okay, onto Bechdel-related stuff. And we're now going to ignore the other three Sherlock adaptations and bring in two of my other favorite shows.
Let's now compare and contrast FIREFLY, MIDDLEMAN, and ELEMENTARY.
I'm going to assume that most of you are familiar with FIREFLY, but fewer are familiar with MIDDLEMAN, so I'll describe that one for you.
In MIDDLEMAN, Wendy Watson is a just-out-of-art school semi-abstract expressionist painter whose calm ability to deal with the deeply weird gets her recruited into a secret organization whose "mandate is to protect the people from threats infra-, extra-, and juxta-terrestial". Her boss, who never gives his name, but rather simply calls himself "the middleman" between the Earth he protects and some sort of Organization Too Secret To Know that provides equipment and support for that protection, is a completely upright, milk-drinking, Eisenhower-jacket wearing, never potty-mouthed paladin who is NOT uptight, priggish, or annoying. He is, instead, boyishly sweet, and has a mutual crush on Wendy Watson's roommate, confrontational spoken-word performing artist Lacey Thorndike.
I'm using very long complex sentences with lots of subordinate clauses in this description because that's how the dialogue is written. When one is thinking about MIDDLEMAN, one's sentence length inexorably quadruples, and one's usage of sesquipedalian adjectival phrases skyrockets.
Also: Wendy Watson is Latina. This is a change from the comic books on which it is based -- one which the creator, Puero Rican Javier Grillo-Marxuach, wishes he'd thought of in the first place. He's not sure how he, a Latino, missed the fact that he never put in any significant Latino/a characters, and was DEEPLY pleased to have a chance to fix that.
Of course, the reason why one thinks of MIDDLEMAN in the context of ELEMENTARY discussions is that they are the only television shows ever who have female leads of color named "Watson". Both are probably mixed-race, which is how they got the name "Watson" -- Joan for certain, because we see a picture of her parents on her caller ID. Many people would love to see a fanfic in which Joan and Wendy meet up at a family party, and kick ass.
So, onto Bechdel-ness.
The first part of the Bechdel test is the existence of more than one significant female character. ELEMENTARY has four reoccurring main characters: Captain Gregson, Lieutenant Bell, Joan Watson, and Sherlock Holmes -- one female and three males. MIDDLEMAN has five: Wendy Watson, Lacey Thorndike, Ida the grumpy robotic receptionist, Wendy and Lacey's neighbor and friend Noser, and the Middleman -- three females and two males. Yes, Ida is female, even if she is a robot. FIREFLY has nine: Mal, Zoe, Wash, Inara, Jayne, Simon, Kaylee, River, and Book -- four females and five males.
This would appear to put ELEMENTARY at a great disadvantage in this category... but let's keep going.
MIDDLEMAN passes Bechdel every episode, and very naturally. You've got two female best friends who live together, and who both have lives. They talk about guys plenty -- but they always have other things going on as well, and talk about those things, too. This naturally leads to passing Bechdel -- because you've got more than one woman who have actual independent interesting lives that don't revolve around men. Because Wendy is almost always the viewpoint character, Noser and the Middleman are essentially reactive rather than active characters (Noser is normally a background commenter on the action, and the Middleman's job is to respond to and defuse threats against the Earth), and about half the villains-of-the-week are female, it's pretty common for MIDDLEMAN to NOT pass REVERSE-Bechdel.
Despite the thing being titled for a male character, and said male character being the ostensible central character in all the plotlines, I think that MIDDLEMAN ends up as one of the most female-centric comic-book/sci-fi based properties ever filmed.
Now onto FIREFLY. FIREFLY frequently passes Bechdel -- but not always. And you'd think that, with that many active female characters, it WOULD. The problem is that those female characters are often in reactive or secondary roles. Zoe is a natural beta, a perfect second-in-command. She's a hyper-competent follower. That's a fine role to play, but she's an assistant position. Kaylee is, essentially ALSO a hyper-competent beta, to the ship itself (the ship being occasionally considered to be a tenth character in its own right). River is insane -- or perhaps it would be more fair to say "chaotic neutral", and is reactive to stimuli that may not be obvious to anyone else, but is not entirely in control of her own actions. Inara ends up as the female character with the most agency and self-direction -- as a sex worker, which in that universe, is SUPPOSED to be a fairly high-status job, but which, in the actual episodes, rarely comes across that way. So, on paper, it looks like you've got a LOT of powerful women with agency, but, in practice, it doesn't come out that way.
Joss Whedon tries SO hard. He so WANTS to be a feminist, and I do love him for trying. But he keeps ... just ... missing. I want him to succeed at making feminist art. But he just doesn't.
And then we've got ELEMENTARY. On paper, this looks like it would have the worst track record of any of them, with only one female character among the four primary ones. And it doesn't do as well as MIDDLEMAN. But I think it does better than FIREFLY. Maybe not empirically -- I'm not sure how many episodes of each pass if you count them up. But in the larger question that Bechdel approximates -- "Does this story include women who have internal lives of their own, who have their own goals which do NOT revolve around a man or men" -- I feel that ELEMENTARY does VERY well. Watson keeps encountering women, as clients, informants, victims, or criminals, that she interacts with on her own initiative and her own terms. While Sherlock is her mentor, he's also her client, and their relationship is not simply hierarchical. It's got hierarchical components, but they go both ways. It's neither an equal nor an unequal relationship, but is rather a more complex, messy thing, kind of like many real-world relationships.
Edited to add: Corrected two errors in what I wrote; thanks Matt and Ny for pointing them out.