Friday, March 2, 2012

Lucy Liu as Watson? What?

Yeah, well, that whole "giving CBS's Elementary a chance" thing is pretty much out the window now.  Or if not actually out, it's on the ledge, teetering precariously.

This morning, my pal Peggy informs me of the cheerful news that CBS has cast Lucy Liu to play one "Joan Watson" opposite Jonny Lee Milller's Holmes in the CBS modern-day-Sherlock adaptation (discussed the very last time I blogged), Elementary.

This was one of those times where my first response was to check the calendar and make sure it wasn't April 1.

Seems that I'm not the only one who isn't taking the idea all that well.  Washington Post has an blog article entitled, "Lucy Liu will play Watson to CBS’s Sherlock Holmes. People appear to have a problem with that."  The blogger in question notes some of the negative reaction which followed the announcement, and then posits the question:  "But as a question to the general Sherlock-loving community: Is it truly that hard to accept the idea of a woman playing Watson?"

(First, that's the wrong question.  I don't have a problem of a woman playing Watson, any more than I have a problem with a woman playing Iago.)  The problem comes when one changes character of Watson into a female one.

And, honestly, I have to admit giving the whole issue a certain amount of thought, because I generally believe that there's nothing women can't do.  I do believe that women are (except for certain biological differences) the same as men -- it isn't that women aren't as intelligent, or that women are more emotional by nature, or any of that sort of crap.  

But the issue here, for me, comes down to something rather more basic:  if Watson is a woman, you're not really doing Sherlock Holmes anymore.  

And that's what we've been more or less promised with Elementary.  Lord knows, there have been plenty of characters on television who have been Holmes-esque, or even inspired by Holmes.  But CBS is here trying to do what the BBC so successfully did with Sherlock -- a full out, in-your-face, no bones about it, updating of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  The time period has changed, the tools have changed, the science has changed, the crimes have changed -- but the essence of what you're watching is still, at heart, the Sherlock Holmes stories.  And if Watson isn't John Watson anymore, you're losing a big chunk of the essence of those stories.

Here's the thing:  I've always thought that, whenever someone is embarking on a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, Holmes is easier to get right than Watson.  Everyone knows what Holmes is: a brilliant, perceptive, intellectual, annoying, aloof, inscrutable, condescending jerk, who is only tolerated because he is genuinely as good as he thinks he is.  But Watson is harder to get a handle on.  He's often played as a total idiot ("Boobus Brittanicus," is, I believe, the proper term for the species), but that's wrong, because he's not.  (He just sometimes comes off that way because he's chronicling Sherlock's triumphs and he's suitably impressed.)  But he's intelligent, educated, courageous, loyal, an exceptional writer, and good in a crisis.  He doesn't mind saying how impressed he is by Sherlock because he's confident enough in his own self that it doesn't diminish him in any way.

So it's hard to get Watson right.  But it's even harder to get the Holmes/Watson relationship right.  Holmes gets more out of Watson than just a biographer.  Watson is a companion and roommate.  He also has the social skills which Holmes lacks, and can smooth things over with people whom Holmes offends or doesn't understand.  Which is most people ... but very specifically includes female people.  

Holmes doesn't get women.  It isn't just that he's asexual (although, yes, there is that), it's that women are insoluble puzzles to him.  He gets Irene Adler (another character everyone seems to get wrong -- although, as a total aside, Sherlock didn't) -- but not any other woman.  He can't relate to women the way other men can, and this leaves him largely useless with roughly fifty percent of the population.

So how on earth can his best friend in the world -- the person on the planet he is the closest to -- be a woman herself?

If Watson is a woman, one of two things is true:  Either Watson isn't Holmes's best friend, or Holmes isn't Holmes.

Either way, Elementary is no longer Sherlock Holmes.

(And this entire discussion gives CBS the benefit of the doubt on the idea that it will be able to have two attractive performers like Miller and Liu play characters who work side-by-side regularly (and may well be roommates) without anything remotely resembling sexual tension or attraction between them.  That men and women can actually function in those circumstances without sex being a factor is certainly true.  That a one-hour televised drama can show them doing so remains to be seen.)


Wil said...

Well, CBS could always write the character as a lesbian, blunting your principal objections if not eliminating them all together.

As a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist myself, I share your concerns ... just because. You posit reasons for your dislike of CBS's actions. I can barely manage a sniveling whine "because it just ain't right, Gov'ner." I think it best if you write our letter of concerns to the programming department at the network, eh?

buddy2blogger said...

Interesting casting choices... Have to see how this one will play out..

Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes..