March 1, 2012

Elementary Is A Good Name For It

I'm much rather see Lucy Liu star in an updated
and less offensive take on Charlie Chan.
After the success of the Guy Ritchie films and the BBC program, it was only a matter of time before an American network offered their own take on Sherlock Holmes. Recently, the upcoming CBS version has made a lot of press over the casting of Lucy Liu as Doctor Watson.

People don’t like the idea of Watson being a girl.

I don’t take umbrage with the idea of a female Watson. Very little in fiction, I think, is so sarcosanct as to be beyond tinkering—especially, if the tinkering can take old material in a new direction or emphasis a theme or character dynamic in an original way. Since he’s firmly a part of global popular culture, The Great Detective, his companions, and his enemies have taken on a life that transcends Doyle’s writing. The idea itself has picked up concepts and audience imposed perceptions that aren’t in the cannon. In Doyle’s stories, the drug abusing Holmes is often lazy (when he’s not on a case), very arrogant, and he never wears a deerstalker (that’s from the Paget illustrations). Nowhere does Holmes ever say, “Elementary, my dear Watson” (the closest he comes is in “The Adventure of the Crooked Man.”) Moriarty only shows up in a mere two stories. And while Watson can’t match Holmes’ deductive powers, he’s never an idiot. Like any meme, the idea of Sherlock Holmes has mutated and spread, often for the better and sometimes for the worse—like too many seasons of House.

Besides, Watson as a woman is not a new idea. Usually when it’s been done, the female Doctor Watson is a psychiatrist who gets assigned to treat a patient who believes he’s Sherlock Holmes. Years ago, even Rex Stout wrote an essay putting forth the theory that not only was Watson a woman, but she was Sherlock’s wife who felt it necessary to mask her sex and their relationship when reporting Holmes’ adventures.

I’m certainty a fan of Lucy Liu, so that’s not a problem. She’s attractive and a decent actress watch her current run on TNT’s SouthLAnd for proof. I think she’ll do fine in the part. Talent has never been Ms. Liu’s problem. In fact, she doesn’t have a problem. The problem is all Hollywood’s—as an Asian-American woman over thirty, unfortunately, there’s not much they’re going to offer her.

No, what bothers is the sex change feels lazy and cheap. You see, CBS originally approached the team behind Sherlock about doing an American remake (something else I’ve never understood, just air it over here on regular network televisionBritish English is not another language and a remake is as pointless and offensive as having to watch an “American language" dub of Mad Max). The BBC passed on the remake. Then in January, word broke about the network going ahead with their own modern version of Holmes, prompting the BBC to threaten a lawsuit if there weren’t substantial differences between the two programs. Now, a little less than two months later, here comes the announcement of Lucy Liu as Watson.

I picture a single development meeting that went something like this:

New Guy: “They threatened to sue.” 
Executive Producer: “What? Screw the BBC! We’ll make...uh...Watson a woman! Then they can’t sue!” 
Toady #1: “That’s a great idea! It’ll be a different show with—VIRTUALLY NO EFFORT!”
New Guy: "Is that enough? I mean shouldn't we talk about what a woman would bring to the role?"
Executive Producer: "No. Women are just different. It's more than enough."
Toady #2: “And we can introduce sexual tension!”
Toady #1: “Will-they-won’t-they! We can milk that for years with—VIRTUALLY NO EFFORT!”
New Guy: "Isn't that kind of offensive though? Aren't we both intimating that Watson doesn't really matter and a woman is a viable character only if she's the sidekick? I mean how is our take really different? We've set it in New York and made Watson a woman—so what?" BEAT. "What if made Holmes a woman and kept Watson a man?"
Executive Producer: "Watson a man? Who plays second fiddle to a genius and incredibly capable woman?"
New Guy: "Well, yeah."
Executive Producer: "What about the drug habit? Female junkies aren't attractive."
New Guy: "Well, yeah, but—"
Executive Producer: "You're fired." BEAT. "So, Watson is a chick...a hot chick..."

I could be a hundred percent wrong. The writers and producers could have spent far more effort on the character of Dr. Joan Watson than I’ve given them credit. Elementary could, in fact, turn out to be even more brilliant than Sherlock. But I doubt it. There’s a reason why the only shows worth watching aren’t on any of the major networks and this just feels like more sloppy sloppy television.
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