The New Watson
When I heard that CBS was producing its own television adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved Sherlock Holmes series for the Fall 2012 season, I was skeptical to say the least. Especially since the world was still reeling from both Benedict Cumberbatch’s and Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayals of the difficult detective. But, being the unabashed fangirl that I am, I decided to give CBS’s Elementary a shot.
One of the most interesting aspects of this new iteration was the deviations the creators decided to take from canon. Firstly, the series is set in modern day New York City as opposed to Victorian London. Secondly, Watson and Holmes’ relationship is slightly different—Watson is Holmes’ sober companion, hired to ensure that Holmes stays sober following a stint in rehab for drug addiction. The most significant difference (and the one most pertinent to this blog) is that John Watson is Joan Watson, portrayed by Lucy Liu.
In Elementary, Joan Watson left her practice as a surgeon because of a fatal mistake she made, and decided to become a sober companion. Sherlock Holmes is her client, and the series follows them as they solves cases and begin to understand each other.
The casting choice was controversial in that critics questioned the misogyny behind making the disgraced surgeon a woman, but I think that the specific actress chosen is a more intriguing topic of discussion. Lucy Liu is often typecast as a dragon lady, equal parts dangerous and sexy, and to place her in a role that requires neither of these attributes is a marked change. The relationship between Holmes and Watson, though professional at its root, is entirely platonic, which is incredibly rare in television shows today that feature a male and female lead interacting in such intimate circumstances. There is a sense of camaraderie between the two, though tense at times, not sexual tension.
Elementary is also unique in that it features a famous Asian-American lead actress, yet there has been no mention of her race, nor have there been any episodes that tackle strictly Asian-American issues. Her identity as an Asian-American female is not directly addressed, but is undeniable in her appearance. While this decision may have been made as a way to market Elementary as different from all the other adaptations, I think that it is effective in creating a discourse around the roles available to Asian-American actors. Lucy Liu has done the orientalized roles before, but her portrayal of Watson is multi-faceted. The character is not restricted by her race. No one in the universe of the series makes a big deal about the fact that she’s Asian-American. She’s just Joan Watson, long-suffering and incredibly intelligent.
Though the season is almost over, I urge you to tune in as Watson wrangles Holmes, not with her exotic feminine wiles, but sharp wit and insatiable curiosity.
By Kayla Dalsfoist
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