Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
At ComicCon 2012, I was able to get into and attend the preview panel for CBS’s new TV show, Elementary, which premieres this Thursday on September 27th, 2012. We were screened the full pilot, and near the end of the panel the stars and producers were brought onto the stage for a Q&A session.
For the uninitiated, Elementary is a television show inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories–it’s Sherlock Holmes set in modern-day New York City. As per the mythos, Sherlock Holmes is an English consulting detective with a drug problem. This time around, he’s relocated himself to New York City, where he meets a woman named Joan Watson, a former doctor assigned to be his sober living companion. The idea for setting Englishman Sherlock Holmes in modern day America came from a person of color, producer Carl Beverly (Justified), who is one half of the co-executive producer team alongside Rob Doherty (Medium).
In an interview with Collider, Doherty notes that "there was no part on the show that was race-restricted because we all felt very strongly that it was irrelevant and incidental. You find the best Sherlock you can. You find the best Watson you can." In this case, the casting resulted in a re-imagining of white British war veteran Dr. John Watson-- Dr. Joan Watson, a former Asian American physician played by Lucy Liu.
Immediately, Lucy Liu's non-traditional, racebent casting generated grumbles from the internet: Too sexy, too female, too dragon lady, too Asian, too American. "Casting Lucy Liu as Dr 'Joan' Watson will ruin one of the great bromances of all time" declared a columnist from the UK Telegraph. Because you see, Lucy Liu is so powerfully femme, she has the power to invalidate the previous 250 instances of audience-projected bromance between two white British dudes and/or mice.
From all of these critiques, there was a lack of faith in whether or not Elementary would be able to defy romantic trope--a goal that that the showrunners were conscious of and ready to pursue. Beverly spoke with Collider about the relationship between Sherlock and Joan. "Rob often calls it a bromance, but one of the bros just happens to be a woman. He said that from the very beginning and I think it’s really an apt description. There’s this idea that a man and a woman can’t be together on a show especially without needing to be together sexually or in love or whatever, and this is really about the evolution of a friendship and how that happens."
This is definitely a dynamic noticeable in the pilot, one that is carried well in the pilot by both lead actors. It actually serves to distinguish Elementary from BBC's Sherlock. Lucy Liu's Joan keeps her cool. It's subtle, but throughout the pilot you can watch her character struggle with keeping professional distance from Sherlock--even as he actively tries to push her buttons, even as she gets drawn into his lust for adventure and risk. Dr. Watson was always intended to be a character foil to Sherlock, and Liu's Joan fulfills this same role. Johnny Lee Miller's version of Sherlock gets this. He can see how Watson brings something that was missing to his work, even as he lacks self awareness in other areas.
Refreshingly, when Sherlock makes a major mistake in the pilot episode, he coughs out a genuine and sincere apology. This action distinguishes his portrayal from other similar ones such as Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock or Hugh Laurie's Dr. Gregory House. With a woman portraying Watson as an equal partner, the audience is also buffered from a repeat of Cumberlock and House's sexism (those wince-inducing scenes were supposed to make those characters more endearing and quirky?) Elementary's Sherlock isn't afraid to respect Watson for her competence, nor her ability to tolerate him. Here and there, he even shows bits of deference and appreciation towards her.
Lucy Liu does not have to play a dragon lady in Elementary, and that freedom has definitely affected her performance and portrayal of the character. Liu recently told The Wall Street Journal: "It feels really good to be always breaking down walls and starting something new and trying something new. You never know – it’s hit and miss. It’s nice to be able to portray an Asian-American on camera without having an accent, or without having to be spoofy. And I think that’s a big step forward, because there are still representations of people that are more comedic. And that’s not what I’m playing. I’m just playing somebody who represents anyone else who would be living in America or outside of it, who is just a regular person.”
In his review of Elementary, television critic Eric Deggans wonders if Liu's ethnicity or ethnic identity will factor into the story at all, or if she will just exist in a "mostly-white world." It's not an entirely unfounded concern. Elementary producer Rob Doherty said in response to a question about racial or ethnic tension between Holmes and Watson, "Sherlock is a guy who’s seen it all and been everywhere, and happens to live in New York, right now. If anything, he struggles a little bit with the New York of it all, compared to London, but as far as cultural differences go and race, it’s just not going to play into it. Elementary is not going to be teaching cultural differences to the audience."
Deggans argues that "Characters of color won't add nearly as many new dimensions to a TV show, if they don't reflect their heritage." And I wonder if cultural differences is impossible to avoid without sacrificing some of the show's refreshing uniqueness. It's exciting to see a reinvention of the Sherlock mythos that features people of color both in the foreground and in the background. When Holmes and Watson ride the subway in New York, or go to the opera, or meet up with NYPD cops, it actually looks like New York.
It's important for Watson to not be defined by Liu's ethnic identity, but it's clear that Watson's Asian American identity and identity as a woman do make a difference in the series. On a meta level, there are people railing against Liu's casting simply because of her race, gender, and nationality. And in Sherlock Holmes's initial encounter with Watson, he uses gendered romantic tropes to test how unflappable she is--ostensibly because she is a woman. Later in the episode, Sherlock and Watson play good-cop, bad-cop with a witness who is a woman, and it is also subtly gendered. Because of her job description, Watson is supposed to trail Sherlock and follow his lead. Sherlock even jokingly refers to her as a valet and assistant. There is a huge gender and racial dynamic behind having a woman of color be the assistant/caregiver/service provider to a wealthy white British man. In a show with verisimilitude, Watson's familiarity with American culture--and her experiences as a "double minority" while living in it--are bound to bring a new perspective to Sherlock's cases, and I hope this is something the producers can work in to acknowledge just how progressive Liu's casting is.
With a procedural formatting, the show offers ample opportunities to cast diversely. The full cast was not fleshed out in the pilot, but white actor Aidan Quinn plays Captain Tobias Gregson, who is Sherlock's in-road to NYPD cases. Manny Perez's cop who distrusts Sherlock, Detective Javier Abreu, was a bit one-dimensional, but hopefully, they will give Perez more to work with in coming episodes. More recently, Jon Michael Hill was promoted to the regular cast as Detective Michael Bell. And Anika Noni Rose will be guest starring as a former colleague of Joan Watson's. (I'm still holding out for the casting of a Latino actor--or actress!--to play "Estrada," the American analogue for Inspector Lestrade. Especially since CBS's diversity numbers for Latino actors are miserable.)
It’s such a contrast from other depictions of people of color in other Sherlock adaptations, such as the stereotypical depiction of Chinatown and Chinese immigrants in The Blind Banker, or Robert Downey Jr. in straight up yellowface in A Game of Shadows.
During the ComicCon Q&A session, tumblr blogger Watermeloncholy approached the mic and decided to ask a question about the backlash towards Liu’s casting. She pointed out that Sherlock Holmes has been adapted multiple times in different ways, and asked about the controversy surrounding the casting of Lucy Liu as a woman and Asian American Watson.
Watermeloncholy: “This is a general question, but it’s mostly directed to Lucy. There have been many many different versions of Sherlock Holmes, including a version where Sherlock and Watson were cartoon mice. However for some odd reason, there seems to be a lot of controversy because Watson is a woman and Asian American. So, I was just wondering how you’re responding to the criticism?”
Lucy Liu: “Firstly, this is the first time I’ve heard anything about criticism–thanks for letting me know. If I didn’t try anything different, I’d still be doing a Calgon ad. You have to be a pioneer, which means doing things that are not schedued and different. When you do stuff, it’s not always to please other people–it’s to please yourself. For me, the more individual you make something, the more universal it can be. You have to be a pioneer.”
Elementary is a pioneering show. It is more than just an American remake of British television. The casting decisions add some much-needed, well-done diversity to the miasma of Sherlock-media out there. Here, Sherlock–a white British man–is the immigrant with the accent. We’ve got Sherlock Holmes and Watson as mice, Sherlock Holmes in modern day UK, and Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century. Now we have Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson.
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”