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Lucy Liu as Watson – perfect or problematic?

Can casting Lucy Liu as a genderflipped John Watson on CBS' new show 'Elementary' be what makes it work, or will it be the downfall of the show before it even starts?

Yesterday when the news hit that Lucy Liu had been cast in the new CBS Sherlock Holmes pilot, Elementary, I immediately turned into Tim Gunn. I crossed my arms, hummed into my fist, and thought “I’m concerned.”

Now, to be fair, I’ve been concerned about this show from its conception, mostly because the startling lack of originality pisses me off. It isn’t that we already are in the midst of both a movie and BBC adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s work, but because of my staunch belief that most crime dramas are, with varying levels of explicitness, spin-offs of Sherlock Holmes anyway, and I really am getting sick of it. Stop me if you’ve seen this show before: an eccentric puzzle-solving genius with no people skills forms a deep bond with their partner, a people-smart every(wo)man who translates how the world works for them outside of their intellectual bubble. There are vary levels of acknowledgement of sexual tension/mutual co-dependency. Together, they fight crime!

Yawn. Over it. And unless some new twist is brought to the table, I feel no need to watch, either. And let me be explicitly clear: making one of those versions of Holmes or Watson a woman? Does not count as original. Both Bones and Rizzoli & Isles already beat you to it. And, quite frankly, this gender-flipping of Watson? It made me concerned that this show would sail right past “boring” and into “potentially super-duper socially problematic” category.

As I am sure I have mentioned before, I suffer from a condition known as “over-abundance of John Watson related feelings”, and as far as I’m concerned, the only person who has ever really gotten John Watson right, to my satisfaction, is Martin Freeman. Watson, as he is written in the books, is meant to be Holmes’ equal. He is a distinguished veteran, an accomplished doctor, and just as skilled socially as Holmes is skilled intellectually. He’s brave, badass, proud, and competent. He has issues with drinking and gambling. He’s not simpering, he’s not fawning, he’s not stupid, and he’s not weak.

The description for Lucy Liu’s Watson already fills me with dread. Gone is the badass military past. Instead, her Watson loses her medical license after letting a patient die, and then somehow decides it’s a super-swell idea to follow after Jonny Lee Miller‘s Holmes as he solves cases. And wait, don’t tell me, there’s going to be sexual tension, only this time they’re going to have them do a Moonlighting before they act on it because hey, when Watson’s a woman, no homo! Also, how could a lady who has so fallen from grace help but be seduced by super-manly Sherlock’s super-manly prowess?

I’ve heard complaints that anyone who assumes that’s going to happen or that Lucy Liu’s Watson isn’t going to be perfect and awesome and of course is going to fall in love with Sherlock Holmes is somehow inherently sexist or racist, which, can I just say, is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. I have no particular feelings either way on Lucy Liu’s abilities as an actress — all I’ve ever seen her in is Charlie’s Angels, in which she was unremarkable, and Kill Bill, in which she was really good at trying to off Uma Thurman but didn’t have much to do besides that. But I have absolutely zero faith in the television industry, and I specifically have no faith in CBS as a network. Of all the major networks, they are, with very few exceptions, the worst when it comes to dealing with socially progressive issues or minority characters. Or, for that matter, thinking outside the box. (Hello, eighth incarnation of CSI/NCIS.) It is not sexist, racist, or any other -ist to have serious doubts about an industry and, specifically, a network, that has failed so often and so spectacularly, especially when what that network has failed at is exactly what you have concerns about.

There are so many ways I could have been less concerned about this. The simplest would just be to¬† have Liu’s Watson still be ex-military, or take out that whole losing her medical license due to incompetence. Heck, they could make her Watson a lesbian and therefore incapable of falling in love with Holmes. That would work for me if handled properly. Or if Holmes had been the one to be genderflipped, not Watson, I’d feel better. Watson is already often misconstrued as subservient to Holmes when he’s played by a man, and that whole perceived power differential becomes so much more problematic when it’s a woman, especially a non-white woman. Heck, couldn’t they have gone the whole hog? Why couldn’t they have made Holmes a lady, Watson a lady, and you know what, let’s take it a step further and have them actually be lesbians instead of hinting around it. Awesome ladies solving crime and loving each other! I’d tune in every week.

Much like when Tim Gunn is concerned, this isn’t meant to be a final judgment on Elementary, and, also like Tim (if I may be so bold as to call him Tim), I’d be more than happy to be proven wrong. In fact, CBS, please consider this an official challenge; win me over. Take me, the girl with more John Watson feelings than is strictly healthy, the girl who is always policing for issues with portrayals of minorities, and give me nothing to complain about.

In other words, make it work.

Photo Credit: TNT

18 Responses to “Lucy Liu as Watson – perfect or problematic?”

February 28, 2012 at 5:28 PM

Just one remark: Lucy Liu is currently amazing in Southland. Unfortunatly she’s only billed as a guest star, and now this news, means that she most probably won’t survive the season. In any case her casting in “Elementry” is a big reason for me to watch it.

February 28, 2012 at 6:05 PM

Sigh… Dupin…

February 28, 2012 at 6:35 PM

Like Robin above me said, you should watch Liu in Southland and it will probably change your mind. Also she was great back in Ally McBeal. I know she kinda fell through the cracks last few years but her work in Southland’s been really exceptional.

February 28, 2012 at 9:37 PM

I don’t think the author has any concerns about Lucy Liu’s ability, rather the character she is to play. The main concerns about this show are getting the characterization absolutely spot on (which BBC has done) and not treating this as a brand. Sherlock Holmes is NOT a brand. Yes, it’s gaining a lot in popularity and let’s face it, this would be the biggest reason CBS wants it. And thus, they are not going to remain true to the character at all.

I’ve grown up to Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. They’re a very impeccable pair and it’s VERY hard to really get deep into their roots on television. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have done an AMAZING job at accomplishing this but I’m not sure that CBS has the script/characterization down for the Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu to do the same.

February 28, 2012 at 6:37 PM

Yes! Exactly this!

February 28, 2012 at 6:39 PM

(Above comment was in response to the main post. I neither know nor care about Southland.)

February 28, 2012 at 6:45 PM

This show is going to be a big hot mess. Its sour grapes development because the Moffet & Gatiss turned them down flat. Now they’re trying to differentiate in a lame attempt to avoid legal issues.

I have serious issues with how they’re painting a female Watson from the get-go–the situation where she loses her medical license sounds stolen from abc’s ‘body of proof’ doc. Disgraced female, paired with a dominating hyper-intelligent male add in UST, because men & women can’t work together without it according to CBS procedurals. For evidence see the abysmal track record with CSI, NCIS attempts. Not to mention decades of TV.

And like you, I feel that Martin Freeman’s portrayal perfectly embodies all aspects of Watson’s character.

In other words–I push the virtual ‘like’ button for your commentary. :)

February 28, 2012 at 7:06 PM

I’m right there with you on the concerns about Elementary. One of the things that made BBC’s Sherlock so awesome is that even though they were modernizing the stories they attempted to stick very closely to canon in other ways. Since Elementary is straying even more, modernizing, plus a new country, plus a gender swap they really need to get everything else right.

I would like to recommend you watch Lucky Number Slevin. Lucy Liu is excellent in it and it is beautifully directed by Paul McGuigan.

February 28, 2012 at 7:21 PM

You forgot Lisbon/Watson to Jane’s Sherlock in The Mentalist, another female Watson-type.

February 28, 2012 at 9:56 PM

See, I’ve always felt that The Mentalist is a stronger analogy to the archetypes of Sherlock/Watson that even House is, and House is overt about it.

February 28, 2012 at 10:02 PM

I don’t think you’re sexist or racist for not liking the idea of Liu as Watson, but I do think it’s extremely silly that so many people seem determined to tank this show before a pilot of it has even been seen. I don’t know if it’ll be bad or good. It might suck. It might not. I’m a fan of both Miller and Liu, but you are right that the premise has been done. But they might bring something good enough that it doesn’t really matter.

As you said, the premise has been done, but a lot of the shows that have copied said premise are excellent shows, hackneyed concept or not. When I first heard about the show Psych, I immediately thought to myself “oh it’s going to be The Mentalist 2.0″, but lo and behold it’s a completely different take on the Holmes/Watson premise, and it’s a great show. Likewise, Castle is kind of a copy of Bones what with the Holmes/Watson premise and the will they won’t they sexual tension. But it too is a great show. They brought their own spin by making Castle and Beckett take turns playing “Holmes” to some degree.

I just think people should take a breath and wait to see it before they start crying travesty. I love the BBC’s Sherlock too, but the people acting like it’s so perfect, how dare anyone ever make something Sherlock related again should chill just a fraction.

February 28, 2012 at 10:13 PM

You got many, many things right. My favourite being the fact that this casting simply takes the show closer to being exactly the same as other CBS shows. And a few non-CBS shows, too. The “Let’s make it more like the shows that already work with audiences” is NOT a good sign. Sigh.

February 29, 2012 at 12:53 PM

I think this is a horrible idea. The whole idea of the show is a horrible idea, but this just adds to it.

Lucy Liu would be fine in the show as a different character, but as Watson.

However as Julia said the whole idea of the show is not needed at all. House, Bones, Castle are all like Sherlock Holmes to a degree, why bother making a show with the characters if it isn’t going to stay close to the source material? You might as well just make another cop show set in NYC.

February 29, 2012 at 12:57 PM

I have seen some strange reviews before, but you are right up there with some of the WORST I have seen. First, I have found Lucy Liu’s work in each show she has done to be excellent–not emmy worthy, but very, very good. Second, to be another CBS show probably isn’t too bad, since they beat every other one of the Networks in ratings consistently. I may not be a fan of Les Moonves, but he definitely knows how to run a Network operation. Last, your review sounds a lot like people who say, “Some of My Best Friends Are–“.

February 29, 2012 at 2:01 PM

Wow, did you even read the review? Or just hyper-skim and knee-jerk?

March 1, 2012 at 11:17 AM

M I definitely read the review, and WOW–I stick with my same comments-some of my best friends are…Kate was a little more kind than me, but it is still the same idea! I love the way you try to slid over the comments I made without pointing out where I might be wrong–spin works with some–with others-not so much!

March 3, 2012 at 12:33 AM

Let’s LIOA. Laugh it off air

March 4, 2012 at 4:07 AM

I’m sorry, but we already have too many lesbians and gays on television. It’s a fad right now to have a minimum of one homosexual person in a television show. It is to the point now where when I see a show with a homosexual in it I wonder if this is a show or just a really expensive LGBT rights advertisement.

I’m fine for changing things, but if you are trying to suggest an original show – making everyone lesbians is about the least original thing you can do in a television show.

What I will agree with you on, and I’m happy you pointed out. Is that every show is already a variation of Sherlock Holmes, and I agree we don’t need anymore detective dramas unless they bring something totally new to the table (This seasons Grimm has been a breath of fresh air).

We do need a good Sherlock Holmes movie or show though – because the Depp Holmes films have been pretty bland.

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