Four Reasons Why Lucy Liu Won’t Sink Elementary

“Elementary” stars Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller. Via TVFilmNews.com

By Guest Contributor Kendra James

Here’s the thing about Elementary: whether or not you like it isn’t going to have everything to do with Lucy Liu’s playing Dr. Watson.

It would be a disservice to Liu to rave about the show just because she’s in it. So let’s keep it real: when it comes down to it this show is nothing more than your average CBS procedural. That said, I like CBS procedurals, and I also happen to like Sherlock Holmes adaptations, so I can easily give you a few reasons why the pilot of Elementary is worth checking out on CBS.com.

1. Chill out. Watson’s being portrayed by an Asian woman doesn’t change the character of Watson as much as you’ve convinced yourself it does. Both Sherlock (Jonny Lee Miller) and Joan keep their traditionally adapted traits and personalities. Sherlock remains the standoffish (a-holeish, if you will) observant genius, while Watson is the former doctor and the only one who seems to be able to tolerate Sherlock’s abrasive mannerisms. They both remain highly educated and of an equal social status, if the clues dropped in the pilot are to be believed. If anything, the changes to Watson’s race and gender work to make certain scenes more poignant. Particularly, I was struck by a moment late in the episode where Sherlock delivers a direct, sincere apology to Joan for the way he’s treated her over the past hour. A white male who acknowledges his poor treatment of a woman of color? That’s more of a novelty on television than a female Watson.

2. Elementary’s New York City actually looks like New York City. This isn’t the whitewashed New York of How I Met Your Mother or 2 Broke Girl’s stereotyped city. Joan and Sherlock walk around an appropriately diverse city where they’re not just sandwiched between other minorities on subways, but also interact with them on a continuous professional level (check out Manny Perez as Detective Abreu, who will soon be joined by Anika Noni Rose). Personally, I’ve never understood why CBS can “get” gender and racial diversity when it comes to their procedural shows but manages to fail time and time again in the sitcom department.

“Elementary” star Lucy Liu. Via Zimbio.com

3. The original Sherlock Holmes novels employ tropes and Chinese stereotypes that were, perhaps, typical of the time. Either way, centered mostly around opium dens, the lives of Chinese immigrants in London were portrayed through a short racist lens. Modern adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novels seem to have problems with this as well. Whether the producers of the show realize it or not, casting a Chinese-American woman as one of the series’ lead characters, washing Watson’s hands clean of any drug use or connection immediately in the pilot, and proceeding to write her as a fully fleshed-out person is too wonderful of an ironic public kiss-off to the problematic source material for me to not watch each and every week.

4. Overall, it’s familiar and–when you’re promoting a cast of diverse faces–that can be a good thing. The procedural is a tried-and-true formula that CBS consistently wins the night with (consider NCIS’ 20.16 million viewer premiere). In five years Elementary will be that syndicated show on TNT that you can jump into at a moment’s notice in the middle of Season 2.

I plead with the show’s naysayers (mostly pressed Sherlock fans, but who’s counting?) to consider what the show is, and then ask themselves the following questions: Do you like CBS procedurals? Do you like Criminal Minds, NCIS, Hawaii Five-0, or any one of the six million CSIs? Do you like Big-Bads-Of-The-Week and slightly-above-average season-long story arcs? Do you not take issue with the standard beautiful-woman-in-peril-and-lots-of-blood storylines that CBS procedurals see as their bread and butter?

If you answered “ye’s to more than one of those questions, then it’s likely that you’ll enjoy casually viewing Elementary. If not, well, then this just isn’t the show for you, and that’s fine. But it’s not Lucy Liu’s fault.

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  • Winn

    I am a member of the BBC Sherlock fandom, but I thankfully missed this debacle over CBS’s adaptation. I love Jonny Lee Miller, and I don’t like or dislike Lucy Liu; I love the idea of Watson being a WOC, and perhaps the show tackling some of the unappealing Orientalism of the original Holmes stories (one would hope). I’m with Kat though; I hate when distinctly British shows are transplanted to the U.S. It just seems lazy and unnecessary. It saddens (though doesn’t surprise) me that some members of the Sherlock fandom acted a fool over this casting, but I think the show’s biggest Achilles heel will certainly not be Lucy Liu (although I find her acting ability limited), but the fact that it is derivative and too similar to others of its ilk on CBS, and just doesn’t measure up to the BBC version.

  • TeakLipstickFiend

    Many thanks for this review – I will definitely check it out.

  • Digital Coyote

    “Personally, I’ve never understood why CBS can “get” gender and racial
    diversity when it comes to their procedural shows but manages to fail
    time and time again in the sitcom department”

    I think it boils down to the differences in “knowing” people, especially if they don’t share all the same ethnic or cultural characteristics. They may “know” a PoC well enough from work to say that they know them to another person (or, disappointingly, claim them as their “[insert group] friend”) but not “know” them well enough to have them over for dinner. Workplace diversity is largely out of the control of most people so they’re forced to accept seeing all manner of people in a range of positions. It’s not a stretch to see them on a procedural show and the lack of deep probing of those characters as human beings with lives doesn’t bother them because they don’t see that in real life anyway. Their coworkers only exist while they’re on the clock.

    One of the draws of the sitcom is being able to say or feel you “know” or have met the types being shown on screen.* Individuals have control over the diversity of their personal lives in most cases. That kind of control means you get to pick and choose whom you know intimately, which is where most of the conflict in sitcoms comes from. That weird thing they do with their teeth that drives you crazy? An inability to keep their libido under control that often results in hilarious stories the next week? A freak accident or miscommunication that initially caused a lot of stress but worked out in a funny way? One of those Very Special Episode moments where you experience profound loss and need to lean on your friends? This is what you talk about when you know someone personally.

    If you don’t genuinely know PoC (or genders beyond of a rigid binary with all the attendant normative baggage) outside of your work (procedural) life, how are you going to do any justice to them on a show largely about personal life (sitcom)?

    * I refused to watch the Big Bang Theory for a very long time because I do “know ” all those people from school (secondary and post-secondary) and what many people find charming or quirky reminds me of why I took a break from science and stayed away from openly declaring my interest in many things for a very long time.

  • Kat

    I agree with all of this, and am perfectly fine with Watson being a) non-White and b) a woman, and will check it out, BUT: I hate it when Americans relocate stories to the US. That is ‘story appropriation’ tbh. Both Asians and women and even more so Asian women are underrepresented in media, the location “USA” and more concretely “New York” are not. The idea that while the rest of the world can emphasize with an American location, while Americans apparently in the mind of media execs can’t be arsed to do the same for a non-American location bothers me.

    • Anonymous

      I think this has more to do with writing what you know and also the consideration of their audience (CBS is, after all, an American company.) It would cost a lot more to move shooting anywhere else outside the US. (As for why New York and not some other city in the USA, well, that’s where the writers live and work.)

  • http://twitter.com/Ellington3 Rhonda Yearwood

    I enjoyed Elementary. It was a nice take on Sherlock Holmes and Watson.
    I like Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock because yes he is clever but unlike other Sherlocks he seems vulnerable, which is something that I have never ever picked up or felt from other Sherlock portrayals be the traditional Victorian Britain or contemporary Britain.
    I like Lucy Lui’s Watson because I think that she is and will give Watson a refreshing new take, and it is about time that a woman of colour is played as an equal.
    I am going to enjoy this show because I do like CBS procedural shows, I like that it looks and feels like New York, I like that the show is New York based, I like how it so far feels inclusive.
    I will watch. I am a fan. And Lucy and Jonny will do a fine job of it I think.

  • Anonymous

    Not a fan of CBS procedurals, and yes! you named that tune so well. Thank you for providing the context in which Liu’s casting is so damn appropriate.

  • Hedgehog

    I want to like it, and I’m pretty sure that once I get over my hang-ups I will like it. But I’m still annoyed that in every adaption that I’ve watched where Watson is a woman, that the character’s army background gets dropped. I mean, it makes sense when you’re doing victorian era, but there’s no reason why a modern female Watson couldn’t have been in the army.

  • N.

    “A white male who acknowledges his poor treatment of a woman of color?
    That’s more of a novelty on television than a female Watson.”

    I loved that part, I won’t even lie. It was a huge breath of fresh air to see a man apologize so sincerely to a woman, and one of colour at that. That particular scene points to what I’m especially digging so far about Elementary: equality. I can respect that. Besides the “beautiful woman in danger!” shtick, I didn’t wince at Elementary’s handling of race or women. That’s more than I can say for certain other recent adaptions. Ahem.

    Anyway, I’m looking forward to the next one!

    • KarenYi

      It would’ve been revolutionary if he hadn’t said the sexist/racist things in the first place and she didn’t act so flattered like he apologized, like a schoolgirl who’d just gotten approval from Daddy. It made me feel queasy tbh. It also would’ve been nice if Miller’s character’s apology meant something and he didn’t just go right back to saying and acting sexist in the second episode too. I’m not going to give the show a third chance, clearly all it’s interested in is propping up the same old tired stereotypes where the white character gives crap to the WOC but she takes it because it’s her job to support him. They also seem to shoving all the personal soap opera onto Liu’s character so Jonny Lee Miller can investigate the crimes when Holmes and Watson are supposed to be partners (crimes where the women get to be victims or, like in the second episode, they’re evil manipulators of poor men). As with everything on CBS that’s not The Good Wife, this show fails at diversity and gender roles. Someone will probably write a kickass female Watson who’s still an Army vet, can shoot a gun and is a great doctor, and that will be awesome, but this show fails on all counts.

  • April Yee

    THANK YOU for a thoughtful and concise analysis. I, too, found it jarring that while Joan Watson is a strong female character, the show still chose to have violence against women as their first case. Ick.

    Lucy Liu doesn’t ruin Elementary. Frankly, she’s the only reason I’m watching it in the first place.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000709864513 Michelle Kirkwood

    Saw ELEMENTARY last night and tried to tape it (I didn’t check to make sure it wouldn’t run out and it did,dammit!). It was okay (cool to see an old fave actor of mine, Aidan Quinn as the lead detective) and it did seem boring at first, but actually picked up and got more interesting toward the end, when Sherlock was closer to solving the mystery. Honestly,though, after having seen the British series on PBS, it was kind of hard for me not to watch ELEMENTARY without doing some major comparing between the two, since Benedict Cummerbach absolutely nailed it as Sherlock. That being said, it was good to see both Liu and Jonny Lee Miller (whom I remember from TRAINSPOTTING, that classic ’90′s Scottish drug flick) back on TV again—-seeing as I don’t see either one of them in a lot of things anymore. Hopefully, it’ll get better and Liu as Watson will be given more to do besides putting up with Sherlock’s messed-up attitudes.

    That being said, what’s gonna happen to PERSON OF INTEREST? I’m kind of surprised there haven’t been that many articles on the show,considering one of the main leads is a black woman–which is the main reason I started watching it in the first place, and I love it—I think it deserves the hype and such and all of that.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000670172140 Silke Ketelsen

    I thought it wasn’t bad for a pilot, but it was a totally generic US crime show with totally generic lead characters and I just couldn’t see any reason for calling the leads Holmes and Watson other than to cash in on the BBC!Sherlock hype. They could have been called Jones and Smith and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.

  • Eva

    I didn’t like the show because I didn’t like it. But I think #2 is true because they really do film in NYC, I don’t think those other shows you mentioned actually film here.

  • http://twitter.com/MangoHeed Isolavalentine

    I’ve never been a huge fan of Lucy acting wise but it would be silly of me to think that her mere presence in this show would some how make it bad. That said I used to love CSI: Las Vegas but really lost interest post season six.

    If you’re saying that Elementary is on par with Season 1-5 of CSI then I’m in! Otherwise it might not be the show for me. However I’m glad it’s good and that other people like it and that it has a really diverse cast (something the BBC can learn from tbh) since that is rare.

    It makes me really sad how this whole Elementary debacle has made the Sherlock fandom look though. Just because some fans are acting like racist idiots doesn’t mean all Sherlock fans are.

  • http://twitter.com/darthrami N

    Thank you for this post. I agree with you 100%. Well, aside from the fact that I -don’t- like standard CBS procedurals, and therefore didn’t like the pilot. I’ll give it one or two more episodes – I LOVE both JLM and LL, but was so so disappointed in the show. Not for any of the reasons you listed above – those are reasons I WANTED to love it! – but because I am just generally not much of a fan of what US Network Television gives us. I just hope that in future episodes they’re given better material to work with within the larger framework of the show.

  • http://twitter.com/mezz98 @mezz98

    “Do you like CBS procedurals?”

    Though I’m loath to admit it in a public forum, yes, yes I do.

    I’m also a fan of the Sherlock stories (the handful that I’ve read anyway), and I like Lucy Liu, so her casting as Watson (my favorite character from the stories) was always going to be win-win-win for me.

    I watched the pilot, and I’m sad to say that I was underwhelmed. Not by the leads. I thought they worked well as individuals and as a team. I even enjoyed the supporting characters (especially Det. Abreu’s snark toward Sherlock). However, I found the plot to be exceedingly meh. But I am not giving up on the show. It was a pilot, and, with few exceptions, such episodes are usually pretty tepid. I will stick around for the next few episodes and pray CBS gives this show a chance.