The Remarkable Reincarnation of John Watson as Joan Watson

Actress Lucy Liu arrives for the American Ballet Theatre Spring Gala at the Metropolitan Opera House, Monday, May 13, 2013 in
Actress Lucy Liu arrives for the American Ballet Theatre Spring Gala at the Metropolitan Opera House, Monday, May 13, 2013 in New York. (Photo by Jason DeCrow/Invision/AP)

Among the myriad revisions of Sherlock Holmes, who continues to be the world's most famous consulting detective, the American television version, Elementary, has made the most radical change to the universe introduced by "literary agent" Arthur Conan Doyle. In this iteration, the game is afoot in modern-day New York City. Sherlock retains the defining deductive methodology and afflictions, but the other half of the duo, Dr. John Watson, has been transformed. He has become she, Dr. Joan Watson; more remarkable (but hardly mentioned), she is Asian American.

Played by Lucy Liu, Dr. Joan Watson is of Chinese descent. She has left her employment as a physician under circumstances less than ideal in order to serve as a "sober companion" who helps recovering addicts. Retained by Sherlock's father, a mysterious figure, she eventually becomes his investigative colleague. She takes her own cases. She solves them.

The approximate equality of Holmes and Watson is not unique. It has become the norm. In the BBC update, which remains in London, Watson is not quite as bumbling as his screen predecessors such as portrayed by Nigel Bruce. He is aware he is not as smart as the man in the deerstalker cap, but he does not hesitate to insist on his own importance. Likewise, the Hollywood steam punk duo who reside at 221B Baker Street are indispensable to one another. There could not be a Holmes without a Watson, though it is possible to imagine the opposite -- that would be Doyle himself, whiling away time in his office between patients by scribbling for pay by the word.

The lack of romance between Holmes and Watson is more unusual. This Holmes and this Watson emphatically will not sleep together. In most detective stories featuring a man and a woman, the drama comes from the romance as much as the mystery.

That is true of an earlier female Watson. Joan Watson is not the first. In the 1970s cult classic, They Might Be Giants, Holmes is a presumably mentally troubled widower, played by George C. Scott, under the care of a therapist, played by Joanne Woodward -- named Mildred Watson. In the manner of quirky movies of the era (such as Harold and Maude), they become a couple of sorts.

Watson is archetypal. Watson could be only English for his original audience, since he serves as a stand-in for the reader himself. The role is defining. He is all but explicitly a representative of what is great about the empire upon which the sun never sets. He is, after all, introduced as just returned from the Afghan war, a wounded veteran. He is solid, stolid, armed when that is necessary. He is not someone who would be comfortable too far afield from the London fog, except at a pastoral destination accessible by rail from there.

Joan Watson is exemplary too. She could only be an American, and probably only a New Yorker. She stands for contemporary urbanism, the possibility of assimilating into a culture to which one can contribute.

Yet what is most extraordinary about this particular Watson is that she is ordinary. That is, her ethnic background is hardly ever noticed much less mentioned. She is accepted. She is distinctive, recognized for herself and not as a symbol of her heritage.

In a recent episode, however, her lineage is conspicuous for its absence. The omission recalls one of the most famous lines from the 56 short stories and four novels, about the curious incident of the dog in the night time -- the animal didn't bark. After Holmes points out that clue, a Scotland Yard inspector expresses his lack of comprehension. It didn't make sense that the lack of noise was a signal. Holmes explains that if the perpetrator responsible for the crime were a stranger, the dog would have reacted. The animal's behavior indicated that the wrongdoer was a friend.

Here is the parallel from "Evidence of Things Not Seen." When a multiple murder looks as if it was committed by a Chinese spy (a false lead) possibly out to steal "brainwashing" technology (recalling the Red Chinese from The Manchurian Candidate), there is no confusion, no issue. On the one hand, there is the suspect: he is Chinese. On the other hand, there is Watson: she is Chinese American.

There is not any association of the Chinese and the Chinese American. There isn't even a sidelong glance of suspicion. Joan Watson is Joan Watson. The actions of a Chinese spy, an alleged spy anyway, do not implicate her. It is Sherlock's occasional transgressions that affect her.

Watson is unlike stereotypes of Madame Butterfly and Suzie Wong. She is assertive, not submissive, without becoming a tiger mother or dragon lady. She is attractive but not a sex object; she appears to control fully her dating life, such as it is. She has no accent, nothing other than appearance that would indicate her ancestry -- even that is initially ambiguous.

It isn't until her Anglo stepfather, a novelist, depicts a fictional Watson (meta-fictional: a character based on a character herself inspired by a fictional character who has been accepted as real) that her linage is discussed. That feature is how Captain Gregson figures out that Holmes and Watson are the ones being copied into literature.

The rival BBC Sherlock presents a much more traditional conception of Asians. In "The Blind Banker," they are exotic. Despite settling in England, they polish tea cups, are beholden to arcane ritual, and perform circus acrobatics.

Elementary also features more than one African American or Black American in a prominent role, such as Detective Marcus Bell and NA sponsor Alfredo Llamosal. The producers cast transsexual actor Candis Cayne as a transsexual Mrs. Hudson, the housekeeper. These are integral to the hyper-realism of the series. It harkens back to the diverse population of the canon shown -- not always in politically correct terms -- by the appearance of Mormons, Jews, Sikhs, and indigenous peoples. (In "The Man with the Twisted Lip," an opium den is an important setting; that venue would be associated with Chinese.)

Elementary is progress in how we perceive race and gender. Asians and Americans of Asian descent are different, as Europeans and Americans of European descent are different. John Watson has transcended the particular to become universal. Like Holmes, Watson is someone we can aspire to become regardless of identity.