The Element of No Surprise
In my last poll I had asked who was the best Sherlock Holmes. Of the ten votes tallied, Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch squeaked out a narrow one-vote victory over Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett who tied with three votes each and Robert Downey, Jr. receiving no votes.
Now I turned my attention to his Number Two, one Doctor John Watson. In this case, we have another tie, but this time it was for First Place. Here were the nominees:
Nigel Bruce (from the Basil Rathbone film series)
Edward Hardwicke (both from the Jeremy Brett Granada Television adaptation)
Martin Freeman (from Cumberbatch's Sherlock)
Lucy Liu (the new kid on the block, from CBS' Elementary)
Jude Law (from the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films)
and out of the kindness of my heart
All Equally Good.
The tally of the nine votes were in ascending order:
1 vote each for Bruce, Liu, and All of the Above,
3 votes each for Law and Hardwicke.
So good to be remembered...
I didn't find Law's dominance in the Watson Poll surprising. For one, he's a genuinely good actor and Law's version is someone who isn't there to look befuddled at the crimes. In fact, Law makes Watson more an action hero than a dimwit, which I think is an innovation to how Watson is generally seen by the non-Sherlock reading public.
Law's Watson is a bit of a brawler who at times is more muscle than brains (although this Watson is by no means stupid). Also, one gets the sense that Law's Watson is genuinely Holmes' friend as well as his partner in (solving) crimes.
What WAS surprising is two-fold. One, that while Law's Watson is proving extremely popular, Downey, Jr.'s Holmes isn't. Remember that Downey, Jr. got ZERO votes. Granted it was a small survey, but given the breath of brilliant performances in the title role, one is rather spoiled for choice when it comes to Sherlock Holmes. Cumberbatch's version I think won because he is the most popular (which might account for Law's victory as well) but given that it was extremely close between Cumberbatch and the most iconic Holmes on film and television, it shows to me at least that Cumberbatch still hasn't dominated previous versions and that the film and Granada Television fans still are passionate.
The second surprise is how Hardwicke, despite not only the passage of time but also being the replacement to the original Granada Television Watson (David Burke) has burned itself into the memory of Holmesians more than Burke has (who got no votes). Is it because Hardwicke was a better actor? Partly, but again, I think that what has made Hardwick so endearing and beloved in the Holmesian community is exactly what Law has done in his film.
If one sees Hardwicke in the Sherlock Holmes series, you note that like Law's version, Watson is not an idiot. In fact, he is able to work out solutions to cases (though not as quickly as Holmes). Second, he is also a man of action: in The Empty House, it is Watson who saves Holmes' life as Colonel Moran is strangling him, and Watson is not afraid to carry a gun (which, curiously, one really couldn't see Burke doing). Finally, the interaction between Hardwicke and Brett (like that of Law and Downey, Jr.) shows a genuine friendship between the men.
One sees this clearly in The Devil's Foot, when Watson is there to get Holmes out of his cocaine addiction and the dangerous poison Holmes used to test his theory as to how the murders were committed. When Holmes comes out of his hysteria, the first words out of his mouth are, "JOHN!", and a relieved Holmes embraces his much-tried friend.
Sisters are doin' it for themselves...
However, there's been near-universal acclaim for Liu as Dr. Watson. I haven't heard a negative thing said about her performance (with the possible exception that she's not given enough to do). It almost seems like Liu is becoming the more dominant person on Elementary, and that this will be more Watson's show than Holmes' show. No one has said that it is wrong to have a female Watson, let alone an Asian-American female Watson. She has managed to overcome two hurdles that some Holmesians might have trouble with (a female and a minority one at that) but Liu has silenced the naysayers and made Joan Watson her own woman.
What I've enjoyed about her interpretation of Dr. Watson is that she is the dominant one. She is Holmes' minder so to speak, making sure he stays on the straight and narrow. I am slightly concerned that she will not be given a chance to show that she is a bright person compared to Holmes but what I see is that Liu's Watson is more than capable of matching wits with her troublesome subject. She is also able to stand up to him in a way that we haven't seen much of. It's not a strict partnership but it's not a dominant/subservient one either. Again, Elementary is starting to feel its way around and I hope my fellow Holmesians give it a chance.
I can't believe they picked that fat guy
and a woman over me!
What did really astonish me is that Freeman got ZERO votes. Even Nigel Bruce (whom I personally detest) was more popular. This is highly bizarre to me because his partner (interpret that any way you wish) Benny Cumberbatch WON his poll. How is it then that Cumberbatch is seen as the most popular of all Holmeses, while Freeman can't even register as a Watson?
It's impossible for me to say because I still haven't got around to watching Sherlock, but I have a few theories. One: Cumberbatch so dominates Sherlock that almost everyone around him works in his shadow (including Freeman). Two: Bruce, Hardwicke, and Law have built up a large fan base as Watson (Liu having an independent fan base of her own) while Freeman hasn't as either John Watson or as a star on his own right (perhaps The Hobbit will fix that). Three: maybe people just don't think he's as memorable as Bruce, Hardwicke, or Law...and/or maybe even Liu.
Once I see the two seasons of Sherlock I can be better able to offer reasons why Martin Freeman wasn't seen as the best Watson (versus his co-star who was seen as the best Sherlock Holmes).
I have found that there are certain qualities to be ranked highly as John Watson, M.D. The best indicator of success is on whether Watson is seen as Holmes' friend as opposed to his stooge. Bruce did play Watson as a blithering idiot, but he also showed him to be Holmes' true-blue friend. Hardwicke and Law similarly managed to do that, while Liu isn't quite there yet her Watson does show she doesn't think Holmes is either evil or intimidating. One hopes that in future Elementary episodes genuine friendship can be shown.
As it stands, I'm with the "all equally good' group, except for Nigel Bruce (whom I could never warm up to). I certainly love Law's interpretation (which is much better than the horrid material), and Hardwicke to my mind is a model John Watson. I even think Liu is the more interesting character in Elementary even if she is the sidekick than the focus. I reserve opinion on Freeman until after I've had a gander at Sherlock but don't think he'll be horrible.
Still, I hope to find John (or Joan) Watson to be a part of my life and look forward to seeing more of the Holmes/Watson partnership. He (and she) is indeed The Good Doctor.