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Laura Prudom

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Elementary Aims to Update Sherlock Holmes With Dated Ideas: Is CBS Afraid to Go Gay?

Posted: 02/29/2012 4:00 pm

In case you hadn't heard, CBS is developing a modern-day reimagining of Sherlock Holmes, set in New York, called Elementary. I was dubious as soon as I heard about the concept, mostly because a modern-day reimagining of Sherlock Holmes already exists -- it's called Sherlock, it's set in England, and it's thoroughly wonderful.

CBS announced that British Jonny Lee Miller would be playing Sherlock, a recovering drug addict and former consultant to Scotland Yard, and I grew slightly more hopeful; he's a fine actor, and I loved him in Eli Stone. Then, on February 27, it was announced that the role of Watson would be played by... Lucy Liu. My hopefulness died a quick and violent death.

This reaction had nothing to do with Liu's race or acting capabilities -- anyone who has seen her on Southland or Ally McBeal knows how talented she is -- and it doesn't even have to do with her gender, really, aside from the ways in which television writers and network executives (the percentages of which are overwhelmingly male) use that gender to perpetuate thoroughly boring and overplayed narrative choices that are endemic to the current broadcast TV landscape.

I promised myself that I wouldn't get invested in any TV pilots this year. Too many development seasons have gone by where I've grown attached to a still-gestating project based on its logline or casting choices, only to see it vanish by the time the networks make their pickups in May. I wanted to remain open-minded about Elementary, and every other pilot, until I'd seen the finished product as it was intended, but something about this news just rubbed me the wrong way, and I imagine I'm not the only one.

It's clear that CBS wants us to applaud its colorblind casting, to be amply distracted by the novelty of a woman in an iconic male role -- á la Starbuck -- that we'll ignore the sacrilege being perpetuated against Arthur Conan Doyle's classic work. And yes, it is laudable (if long overdue) for networks to cast people of color -- especially women of color -- in leading roles without flinching. That shouldn't be noteworthy at this point -- sadly, it still is.

But there are two distinct, and equally cynical, reasons why the network is shying away from portraying the Holmes and Watson relationship in the manner in which it was intended, and I'm not impressed with either.

1. CBS is trying very hard to avoid being sued by the creators of the BBC's masterful Sherlock for copyright infringement. That series (aired on PBS in the U.S.), which recently concluded its second season in the UK, stars Benedict Cumberbatch in the titular role, with Martin Freeman (who will play Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson's Hobbit movies) as his faithful and long-suffering roommate-cum-investigative partner, John Watson.

It hasn't escaped fans' notice that Elementary star Miller recently shared the London stage with Cumberbatch for a unique retelling of Frankenstein, with the pair trading off the roles of Victor Frankenstein and The Creature in alternating performances. In a recent interview with The Independent, Sherlock producer Sue Vertue said of CBS' leading man, "Let's hope their pilot script has stayed further away from our Sherlock than their casting choice ... We have been in touch with CBS and informed them that we will be looking at their finished pilot very closely for any infringement of our rights."

According to the paper, CBS responded, "Our project is a contemporary take on Sherlock Homes that will be based on Holmes, Watson and other characters in the public domain, as well as original characters. We are, of course, respectful of all copyright laws and will not infringe on any stories or works that may still be protected."

Transplanting Holmes from his famous home at 221B Baker Street to the streets of New York and switching Watson's gender certainly remove any possible claims of infringement the BBC could make, but also risk raising the ire of the purists. I rarely get uppity about my British lineage when it comes to pop culture -- especially since I'm entirely enamored of American TV -- and the only Conan Doyle novel I've read is The Hound of the Baskervilles, but Sherlock Holmes is so quintessentially British, and so inextricably woven into our literary national identity, that it still seems like blasphemy to Americanize such a distinctive character. It would be like James Bond working for the CIA, with Q played by a wise-cracking Chris Rock. If you're going to change the basic tenets of the character, why call the character Sherlock Holmes at all, unless you simply want to cash in on the name recognition? The 1954 Sherlock Holmes series, starring Ronald Howard, may have been designed chiefly for U.S. syndication, but it was still set in London, with a predominantly British cast (even while being filmed in France).

It does help that Jonny Lee Miller is playing Holmes as a Brit who has moved to New York, rather than dusting off the American accent that served him well in the disappointingly short-lived Eli Stone, but surely the success of Downton Abbey has proved that American audiences aren't allergic to seeing shows based in Britain -- if anything, the novelty might prove more appealing. But it's Liu's "Joan Watson" that really rankles me, and almost wholly because...

2. The producers likely want to avoid the homoerotic subtext inherent in the Holmes and Watson relationship. Let's call a spade a spade; in 2011, CBS again placed last in GLAAD's Network Responsibility Index evaluation, which examines "the quantity, quality and diversity of images of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people on television."

On a potentially related note, CBS' audience typically skews older, with approximately 44 percent of its viewers falling between the ages of 35-54. If GLAAD's findings are any indication, there seems to be some resistance, whether it's at an executive or developmental level, to the network portraying sexual diversity in its characters. Clearly, that model is working for them, since CBS is still dominating across the board in overall ratings (if not the key adults 18-35 demo), but as the cultural zeitgeist grows more progressive, pressure is mounting for networks to follow suit -- hence the GLAAD study.

From Conan Doyle's source material to the most modern updates starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, and Cumberbatch and Freeman, Holmes and Watson's codependent relationship has always been laden with unresolved sexual tension, generally played for laughs, but often still acknowledged as a loving partnership, whether deemed platonic or not. In the novels, Holmes canonically displayed no romantic interest in women, only a fascination with the cases they brought him -- though it's worth noting that Watson was married.

And yet, here we have Joan Watson, who, like any female lead in a procedural, will inevitably serve as a romantic interest for her eligible male co-star somewhere down the line -- for such is the Moonlighting curse. I see no feasible way around this, unless Liu's character is improbably announced as a lesbian in the pilot (and given CBS' NRI rating, that seems unlikely) or she and Miller turn out to have zero chemistry, which defeats the whole purpose of the relationship. This heteronormative spin on one of pop culture's most enduring male friendships -- up there with Kirk/Spock and Batman/Robin -- is perhaps the most disappointing aspect of Elementary. It deliberately sidestepped an opportunity to give the Holmes story a truly original twist, wherein it could've embraced the punchline and had the characters finally act on that widely acknowledged sexual tension, just as a heterosexual TV duo inevitably would.

I'm not even advocating that a broadcast network boldly go where Holmes and Watson have never (officially) gone before -- because that would upset just as many fans as Elementary's gender bending has. But since CBS is apparently entirely willing to bastardize the source material just to attract procedural fans who like their weekly dose of will they/won't they friction (spoiler alert: they will), I'd much rather they bastardize in a way that stays true to the characters and has some vague basis in Conan Doyle's text.

Arbitrarily shoehorning a woman in, either to avoid a lawsuit or to avoid the mere possibility of homoerotic subtext, is cowardly, lazy writing, conveniently hidden behind the pretense of the producers attempting to be "inclusive" in writing strong female characters.

This isn't like the Battlestar Galactica producers trying to avoid a TV cliché (in that case, a Han Solo-esque guy playing "a rogue pilot with a heart of gold") by casting Starbuck as a woman -- this is actively embracing the cliché that has persisted since Moonlighting, one that is already well-represented on primetime thanks to The Mentalist, Castle and Bones.

While Watson has always been subject to various character modifications in ways that Holmes seems immune to -- from bumbling comedic foil to an ill-advised robot in an animated series -- this seems especially gratuitous. And really, since networks still seem to adhere to the
"sweeps lesbian" every time they need a ratings boost, why not go all the way and make both Holmes and Watson into women? It worked for Rizzoli and Isles (kinda). The answer is simply: because CBS wants to play it safe. They've built a reliable roster of cookie cutter cop and legal dramas in which everything exists in simple binaries of man/woman and good/evil; why would anyone take a risk when they can rule the ratings with minimal effort?

Sadly, in a time when the viewing public already has an exceptional TV adaptation and a blockbuster movie franchise offering two vastly different but equally respectful interpretations of the character, Elementary appears to be little more than a patently transparent attempt to cash in on a recognizable name. I'm hoping I'm mistaken about its intentions, but if I'm honest, I'm really hoping that the series never gets past the pilot stage. Save yourself the frustration; catch Sherlock on PBS instead.

 

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