I say Sherlock, you say Watson. I say Watson, you say Lucy Liu. Say what?!
CBS is betting big that Lucy Liu can pull off playing a female Dr. Watson in their answer to the contemporary reinvention produced by the BBC known simply as "Sherlock." The American version called "Elementary" will not only take place in our time, however, but in our place. As if transplanting the very British Sherlock from London to New York isn't enough of a risk, the producers also chose to make Dr. Watson a woman. As if that weren't enough of a risk, she's an Asian-American woman. Nobody has ever gone out on a limb with Arthur Conan Doyle's second most beloved character, right?
It's not that elementary, my dear.
So ingrained into the zeitgeist of detective fiction is Sherlock's less perceptive but infinitely more human companion that he has become an entertainment trope known as The Watson. The Watson exists primarily to be just thick-witted enough to be required to ask questions that many members of the audience might want answered themselves before moving onto the next act. Lucy Liu may look nothing like any actual Dr. Watson or any examples of The Watson that have been presented over the years on American television, but to suggest that she is such a genuinely radical departure from the original prototype is questionable at best.
Think there hasn't been a female version of the Watson before? How about Sharona on "Monk"? Adrian Monk is quite clearly based on Sherlock Holmes with his eccentric brilliance in the art of deduction. Monk was originally accompanied on his crime-solving escapades by the prickly Sharona Fleming who fulfilled the requirement of asking questions that needed to be asked in order to better explain his process toward crime solving. Beyond that, Sharona also replicated Dr. Watson's role in keeping enigmatic genius more firmly planted in mundane reality than it would be if left unfettered.
Dr. Watson clearly is the inspiration for another example of The Watson that veers substantially from Conan Doyle's archetype. Burton Guster -- variously known as M C Clap Yo Handz and Clementine Woolysocks -- brings Watson into an urban environment on "Psych " that the British military doctor never imagined possible. Gus is the loyal sidekick to a guy who may be as fraudulent as the Red-Headed League as a psychic, but rivals Sherlock himself in his powers of observation.
You might think that Gus has taken Watson a long way from Conan Doyle's original mainly by virtue of his skin color. Only time will tell if ethnicity is the most striking risk the producers of "Elementary" made in have Watson represented by an Asian-American woman, but Gus represents a progression for The Watson more in terms of level of intellectual engagement in the art of solving crimes. Sherlock never really needs Watson to catch the bad guy, but Gus has made The Watson a truly a symbiotic character on "Psych."
That groundwork for making a non-professional such an integral element of the Sherlock mystery machine on "Psych" owes perhaps its biggest debt to an often overlooked version of this trope. Sharona, Gus, and Lucy Liu's version of Watson would doubtlessly have come to exist without a certain redheaded FBI agent, but it might have taken longer. Special agent Dana Scully is intelligent enough that on any other show -- or when teamed with just about any other law enforcement officer on "The X-Files" -- she would have been the Sherlock. Scully just so happened to be partnered with one of the few FBI agents (fictional or otherwise) with a mind gigantic enough to step in the footprints left behind by Sherlock Holmes.
Gillian Anderson's agent Scully came a long way from Nigel Bruce's most famous big screen incarnation of the Watson, baby! Lucy Liu clearly has to do more than just show up as an Asian-American woman if she truly wants to make a subversive impact on the history of The Watson.
More from this contributor:"Sherlock Holmes and Philosophy" Extra: An Excerpt From My Original Chapter Submission
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