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The Creation of Irene Adler

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CBS’s Elementary loves playing with tropes and expectations. From the day it was announced that the usually white, middle/upper-class male John Watson was going to be played by Lucy Liu, the show has challenged problematic elements of its genre and turned standards on their heads.

And although Lucy Liu’s Watson is a fabulous character, this subversion is nowhere more powerful or evident than in the show’s interpretation of Irene Adler.

Warning: this post contains MAJOR spoilers for the first season of Elementary.

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An Ode to Joan Watson

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Let’s talk about Joan Watson.

When Elementary cast Lucy Liu to play Watson in its modern-day Sherlock Holmes adaptation, it could easily have been a case of stunt casting. (Just imagine a gender-bent Watson in the hands of Steven Moffat). Instead, Joan Watson has become one of my favorite characters on TV. Ever.

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Jerk Geniuses

Is anyone else sick of the jerk genius?

You know the one. He’s unprofessional, lazy, selfish and rude, and even makes frequent sexist and racist remarks against the people around him, but that’s OK, because he’s a genius. He’s the best doctor/detective/scientist around, so everyone will put up with his jerkitude. Respect for others is the foolish pastime of the less intelligent.

We’re clearly meant to admire these (exclusively male) characters, or at least be amused by their social ineptitude. Their dismissive attitude to others, and especially their sexist jokes to others, are aspirations. They’re geniuses, observant and intelligent. They are just telling it like it is!

Which is one of the reasons I really love Sherlock Holmes in new CBS drama, Elementary. Yes, he’s a genius, and yes, he’s kind of a jerk at times. But he isn’t allowed to get away with it. His rudeness, his laziness… these are clearly character flaws, and his (female!) partner isn’t afraid to call him on his nonsense. And in return, he says things he shouldn’t, but he also respects her, he listens to her, and he even apologizes for things that he does. He isn’t a genius running rampant in the city, above the concerns of all the other silly humans. He’s an intelligent, observant, but flawed human, and he has to follow the same laws of decency as the rest of us.

Not only does Elementary modernize the story by partnering Sherlock with an Asian-American woman, it also allows them to actually be partners, with different strengths and weaknesses, different knowledge bases, and a complete unwillingness to take the other’s crap.

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Elementary

I think Elementary might be my new favorite show of the season.

Normally, I’m pretty skeptical after watching pilots. The only one that’s ever made me completely fall in love was LOST, and we all know how that turned out. But despite the fact that I’m not usually a procedural fan, I really enjoyed Elementary. In fact, I wish I hadn’t watched it early, because I really want the next episode right now. A month is too far away.

The show’s premise is simple: Sherlock Holmes in New York. Holmes is just getting out of rehab, and his father has given him an ultimatum: either stay clean and put up with a sober companion, Joan Watson, or be kicked out on the street. But Holmes has already created his own post-rehab program — he’s going to resume his detective consultant work for the NYPD. If Watson wants to tag along, that’s fine with him.

In an interview, Lucy Liu commented on how great it is to play a character who is Asian, but whose Asianness is not the focus. Joan Watson is not an “Asian character,” full of stereotypes and comments on that fact. She is a character who happens to be Asian. Similarly, this adaptation has turned John Watson into Joan Watson, but Joan isn’t a “female character,” in the sense that they’ve decided to emphasize her femininity and how being a woman makes this Watson different and new. She’s a character who happens to be female.

The dynamic between Holmes and Watson is excellent, and definitely the thing that made me fall in love. She challenges him and won’t put up with any of his nonsense. In return, he not only comes to admire her but also to respect her. He can be a jerk at times (he “just can’t help himself”), but, as we learn, part of it is an act to drive people away, and the other part is acknowledged as jerkiness and not brushed aside. He’s an intelligent male character who actually apologizes for hurting other people’s feelings. His rudeness is a flaw, not a strength. And, as we see in the pilot, both Holmes and Watson are necessary to solve their cases. They are both intelligent and observent, and they complement each other in the field.

Also, I’ll admit, I just find Joan Watson’s character all-around awesome. She’s passionate, dignified, no-nonsense, compassionate, clever, dedicated and fun. And she feels like a real person, flaws and all. Bravo, CBS. They took a truly modern stance on Sherlock Holmes (women and racial minorities exist!), and then they didn’t turn it into a gimmick. They made it feel real.

I can’t wait to see more.

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Elementary, My Dear Joan

CBS have released a preview for their somewhat controversial new drama, Elementary, which premiers this fall.

The promo doesn’t reveal much. Certainly not enough to judge the quality of the show. Sherlock Holmes is the usual observational genius without any awareness of social norms. Watson is the smart, more emotionally attuned sort-of-friend who tries to rein him in. It’s set in modern day Manhattan. Oh, and Watson is played by Lucy Liu. It seems to be that last fact that is giving people trouble.

There’s something distinctly uncomfortable about the Internet’s horrified reaction to the fact that a Chinese-American woman is playing this role. What TV show currently features a Chinese-American woman as one of its main cast? Grey’s Anatomy is the only one that comes to mind. The writers of Elementary have embraced a truth that many TV writers fail to understand: America isn’t just a world of white men and the women who love them. When making a modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, set in Manhattan of all places, it therefore makes sense to change up the genders and races to be more inclusive than the Victorian England Boys Club. Although obviously I can’t comment on how well it’s done in the show, it’s an admirable effort, one that many shows do not bother to make. Especially since (again, just judging from a not-very-telling trailer) we’re not getting “Watson as a woman,” with lots of emphasis on that fact in the story. We’re getting a modern Watson, who happens to be a woman, who happens to be Chinese. She’s tough (but more sympathetic and emotional than Sherlock, as any normal human being would be). She’s capable and intelligent. An ex-surgeon. And yes. She’s a woman.

I don’t know how good the show will be. I’m going to check out the first few episodes, because it could be fun. It could also be terrible, like many pilots that don’t last past November sweeps. But hating it because it ruins the bromance vibe? Because it actually attempts to be a modern adaptation, rather than a straight-up retelling? That doesn’t make sense to me.

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