Dear CBS, it’s been done. And by your network too.
Further proof that CBS’ in-the-works Sherlock Holmes reboot will take the iconic franchise in a radical new direction: The network has cast Lucy Liu as Watson!
Nothing radical about it. In a not as awful as I feared TV movie in the late 1980s, Margaret Colin played Watson to Michael Pennington’s Holmes.
Ok, she was Jane Watson, Doctor Watson’s great-grand-daughter. Holmes was Holmes, waking up after an 80 year nap---he’d had himself frozen. I forget exactly why. Something ridiculous involving Moriarty. But the effect was the same after you got used to the gimmick and his calling her Watson.
Watson became a woman, and what did it add to the story? Some mild sexual tension. How radical.
Also, there was a movie I loved when I was a kid but I’ve never seen again since, They Might Be Giants, with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. They weren’t really Holmes and Watson. He was a madman who thought he was Sherlock Holmes and she was his psychiatrist. But over the course of the movie the line between delusion and reality blurred and by the end they’d become pretty much who he thought they were.
TV Line also reports, breathlessly, as if amazed by the producers’ audacity:
Another key change: Sherlock and Watson now live in New York City.
Guess where the TV movie was set.
But it’s not that the idea of a female Watson is not new now, it’s that even back then, when the TV movie aired, it was second-hand. The Return of Sherlock Holmes was itself a knock-off of 1979s Time After Time with Pennington as Holmes replacing Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells and Margaret Colin standing in for Mary Steenburgen and a cryogenic sleep chamber doing the work of a time machine. And it was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series and Remington Steele and Moonlighting.
And not only is a female Watson not a new idea. These days it’s practically retrograde. The pairing of an eccentric, unorthodox, or at least unconventional genius male detective (or detective manque) with a tough, no-nonsense, more by the book female detective is a TV staple. Castle. The Mentalist. Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Monk. Chuck. Warehouse 13. They all work this conceit. Bones flips it and puts the woman in the role of Holmesian eccentric and genius, which is at least a little more unexpected. This “new” Holmes series will be able to call itself a radical departure if it resists having its Holmes and Watson become romantically involved and who wants to bet that will happen?
One of the beauties of Sherlock, the BBC series CBS’ Elementary is trying to cash in on, is that in moving the setting to 21st Century London nothing essential is changed. Holmes and Watson are still Holmes and Watson. The inside joke turns out to be that there’s no need to modernize them, they always were modern. They didn’t know they were living in the past. They thought of themselves (that is, Conan Doyle presented them) as living on the cutting edge of the future. If anything, they were ahead of their time, in their attitudes as well as in their reliance on the latest in science and technology. What makes the stories what they are is the relationship between Holmes and Watson and that has not changed. That’s what sells the series. It’s also what sells the Robert Downey-Jude Law movies. Both are doing variations on the theme, but it’s still the same song.
It also helps that the casting is superb. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are each excellent on their own, but together they are the best Holmes and Watson team ever, and I’m still a big fan of Brett and Edward Hardwicke and Brett and David Burke.
Nicholas Rowe and Alan Cox of Young Sherlock Holmes have a special place in my heart too.
Many writers have proven that Holmes can be Holmes on his own. It doesn’t belittle Watson’s importance to say that he can be left out of an adventure, because it turns out he often is. But if you put Watson in it, then he should be Watson or else the fundamental relationship changes and you don’t have Holmes and Watson. You have Holmes and some other sidekick and that’s not new either.
It’s not a bad thing. It can be a very good thing. But it’s not a new thing.
Of course, if your Watson isn’t Watson, your Holmes might as well not be Holmes. You can call him any other name you want. And then you can begin to do some truly new things with that character.
You can call him Adrian Monk or Bobby Goren or you can make a pun and call him House.