Elementary TV Show: Lucy Liu Makes a Great Watson, But Would Make a Better Sherlock Holmes


"Based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle," one of this season's few new dramas of distinction, CBS' Elementary, benefits from the star power of Lucy Liu. The show is a modern reboot of Sherlock Holmes, but Liu is, disappointingly, not Holmes, but "Joan Watson." If she were Holmes, the show could be an instant classic. As it is, it's okay for a network crime procedural.

In keeping with my 2013 creative credo of "just change one thing," this is precisely what executive producer Robert Doherty did in creating the new hit drama: he put Sherlock Holmes into a contemporary setting (New York) and made sidekick Dr. Watson a woman.

Fans of the deerstalker hat-wearing, calabash-pipe smoking Holmes of movie fame (and the original stories) could have been appalled by Elementary's supposed desecration of one of literature and film's most famous characters. In reality, few are bothered after not one, but two Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes mashups of Steampunk and slo-mo pugilist Robert Downey, Jr. The big "one thing changed" in Ritchie's 2009 and 2011 Holmes' films: a totally hot, smart Watson, Jude Law. 


Jude Law: hot. Or, as I termed him after the 2009 film: Dr. Wa-Hot-Son.

2012-13 Lucy Liu: hot. She's Ms. Wa-Hot-Son.

Classic 1940s Watson, Nigel Bruce: Dr. Wa-Not-Son. But Bruce was so lovably dumb and teddy bearish he made a great foil to the razor sharp profile and wit of Nigel Rathbone as Holmes.

This article does not deal with the 2010 BBC modern-day Holmes reboot with Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.

But also for comparison purposes, here are Cumberbatch and Freeman as Holmes and Watson. I leave it to the reader to judge hot or not. Cumberbatch, whose career is mega-hot right now, got himself into a bit of a sticky wicket as to whether or not he appreciates the U.S. competition, or thought fellow Brit Jonny Lee Miller should have taken the role as Holmes for CBS.

So, is it elementary that everyone should watch Elementary on CBS starring Lucy Liu and ... uh ... what's his name? Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes?

Elementary isn't the only American TV show to play in the Holmes-Watson ballpark in recent years. One of the best American shows in this century is Fox's House, which ended its 8-year run last year. Viewers and House creator David Shore alike found similarities between Holmes and Watson and brilliant, Vicodin gobbling, Aspergery diagnostician Gregory House and his more humane, common-sense friend Dr. James Wilson. The "just one thing" changed, in addition to their names, is that House is an American doctor (portrayed by a great British actor, Hugh Laurie) and the mysteries solved are medical, not criminal. The general "villain" and hero in most House episodes was human nature and nature itself.

Is Elementary as good a show as House? It could become so, but it has a long way to go. Lucy Liu has just as much magnetism and talent as Hugh Laurie. With some sharp writing, Elementary could become the mainstay that House was in American homes for nearly a decade.

Elementary's writers haven't quite gotten there yet. You see, if you change "just one thing," it has to go all the way. And along the way, Elementary's creators forgot what it is that made Holmes one of the most beloved characters in all of literary, film, and now television history. Holmes is a troubled, single-minded genius who sees the truth when no one else can — Elementary has the "troubled" and "single-minded" parts right. They've left the "genius" part out so far.

When Watson seems genuinely smarter, more capable, and insightful about crime and every other aspect of life than Holmes, the story is in trouble. It's not just Lucy Liu as Watson who seems brighter and more alert than Miller's Holmes. Former 80's heartthrob Aidan Quinn as Capt. Gregson (portrayed in the 40s films as borderline developmentally disabled) is smarter than Holmes, too.

Speaking of "hot" ...

Seriously. This is what Aidan Quinn used to look like. All millennials reading this, look upon Ozymandias' shattered visage and witness the sands of time.

I'm referring to Quinn and aging, because I didn't recognize his voice or his face and was amazed to learn that the insanely hot Aidan Quinn I remembered from Madonna's terrible film Desperately Seeking Susan (1985) was now the gravel-voiced, grizzled Capt. Gregson in Elementary.

He's important in the show, and in this review, because in the episode I watched ("Rat Race") he informed an unaware, disheveled Holmes that Holmes hadn't fooled him in several respects. He said he had always been aware that Holmes was a drug addict and that Holmes' "associate" Joan Watson was his "sober companion," assigned to keep him from disappearing into bathrooms and shooting up smack. He said sympathetically that he had just been "waiting for Holmes to tell him on his own." Circumstances of the story (Holmes almost getting killed) encouraged him to spew.

We already know that Sherlock Holmes is, in some respects, a broken, dysfunctional person. But his mind functions perfectly. Capt. Gregson doesn't need to be a complete idiot for the stories to work. It's not at all the same type of story if Gregson is smarter than Holmes. 

I can accept Lucy Liu being a hot, and smart, Watson. But in the same show, she was dating a man who turned out to be married and he seemed astonished when Holmes coached her on internet search techniques known by 16 year-olds. Two dummies: know-it-all Holmes sharing 1990s tech that just about everyone knows, and Lucy Liu/Watson — "You mean he's married?"

I saw that one back on Bewitched. I think it happened to one of Samantha's aunts.

I had seen the plot of this episode before, too. A Wall Street investment banker turned up dead from an apparent heroin overdose, but it was really murder. And guess who did it? Jessica Fletcher, Matlock, Steve McGarrett (then and now), Quincy M.E., Columbo, Starsky and Hutch (separately), and all of the CSI's, even Horatio Caine, all solved this crime before, and figured out who did it faster and better than Holmes did.

Evidence of how smart and contemporary this Holmes is came in the form of Holmes informing the gathered Wall Street bankers that a sociopath was in their midst. "We're all sociopaths," said the guy viewers were supposed to think was the killer.

Oooh. Sharp line torn from today's headlines. They all ended up looking smarter than Holmes. Who really did it? That guy's secretary. Of course.

Here's what the sociopathic banker who didn't do it, and his secretary, who did, look like.

Of course she did it! Holmes was also saved by Lucy Liu's motherly instincts at the end, after he allowed the comically wicked secretary to take him into a parking garage to kill him after confessing her crimes in detail, Bond-villain style.

We fiction writers have a name for this type of writing and plotting: dumth.

Elementary's creators did the right thing by updating Sherlock Holmes, putting him in contemporary Manhattan, and by making James Watson into Joan Watson and casting Lucy Liu. 

They just didn't take the "change one simple thing" to its logical conclusion. Jonny Lee Miller as this Holmes seems not only un-self aware, he's not very smart, and his miraculous deductions seem like basic crime, life, and TV show plot knowledge that most people have. For example, everyone who watches more than four House episodes knows that the doctors will always suspect "sarcoidosis," but the patient will never actually have it. They also know that only one out of every 8 to 12 House patients will die (and Sherlock Holmes will never die).

Elementary's show runners need to let Lucy Liu put on her big girl panties, make her Sherlocketta Holmes, and let Jonny Lee Miller be a big-eyed, slow-witted Watson. Then, it would really be a show to watch. As it stands, two and a half calabash pipes out of five ...no Deerstalker.