Now, a female Watson
Forget Sherlock or even House. The most polarising Sherlock Holmes adaptation is probably Elementary. Not the least because Dr Watson is a woman.
She’s hardly the first woman Watson. The 1971 film They Might Be Giants had Joanne Woodward in the role of the psychiatrist Mildred Watson, treating a man who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes. In the 1987 TV movie The Return of Sherlock Holmes, Margaret Colin played Jane Watson.
When it was announced in 2012 that Lucy Liu would play Joan Watson to Johnny Lee Miller’s Holmes, set in present-day New York City, there was backlash from all corners of the internet. What of the bromance so integral to the characters? What of Sherlock’s skittishness around women, surely the mark of genius? What of the story’s male fanbase?
The Guardian even carried a diatribe in their opinion section. Victoria Coren called Liu’s casting a “mindlessly trendy piece of feminising”, said she’d “like to press Liu’s face into a bowl of cold pea soup” and that she rather liked “the idea of an Asian Watson, but American? God save us all”. She’d only watched the trailer. A week later, Coren was back with another piece, feebly (and unsuccessfully) denying she was racist and sexist. She still hadn’t watched the show.
The people at CBS hadn’t watched it either when Liu went on air to promote it. Would the plot have a will-they-won’t-they sexual tension? They asked.
Six seasons in, Joan and Sherlock are no closer to getting closer to each other. Watson started off as the sober companion to Holmes’s recovering drug addict and has morphed into something else entirely. She’s no longer his caretaker or his redemption. She’s not his love interest or his moral compass. She conforms to no female archetype. Instead she’s now his friend and apprentice, giving pop-culture a slot that Castle, Bones and even Remington Steele (all TV crime shows featuring dashing male leads, with female sidekicks-turned-romantic-interests) couldn’t: a boy-girl team who fight crime as equals and just friends.
Perhaps it’s because Watson is played by Lucy Liu – she’s built her career on scowls and withering looks – that the character would never sit neatly into the Female Role pigeonhole. Other Watsons have served as deferential foils for Holmes’s genius. Jude Law is almost wifely to Robert Downey Jr; Martin Freeman is stuck playing the goodest of good men to counterbalance Benedict Cumberbatch.
Liu, on the other hand, plays a woman with the makings of a very good detective herself. She’s eventually solving cases on her own, takes down Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty (played gleefully by another woman, Natalie Dormer), and accepts cases solo.
Elementary’s best quality is that its world doesn’t orbit around Holmes. Everyone is smart on Elementary, even Inspector Lestrade – it’s almost like New York has no room for anything less, and even Sherlock’s genius is only one notch above the ordinary. It creates a fantastic, attractive, intelligent female hero who’s refreshingly not obliged to sleep with her equally qualified colleague.
And yet, when Liu appeared on CBS to promote the show’s fifth season, they still asked her if Holmes and Watson might one day become a couple.