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.