It’s Elementary: Let’s Talk About Lucy Liu
Now all the Beyoncés, and Lucy Lius, and baby dolls. Get on the floor! Get on the floor!
There’s a scene in Elementary where Joan Watson, as played by Lucy Liu, converses with Captain Gregson about an ongoing investigation. The issue of security is raised, and he smugly responds by showing his weapon and saying, ‘I’ve been a cop for 30 years. I carry a gun,’ With a subtle roll of the eyes and the sigh of a woman who’s heard this peacock strutting before, she copies the movement of his jacket opening and mutters, ‘And a penis.’
Elementary is full of moments like that - the subtle jabs and reminders of an unfair system made by a woman painfully used to microaggressions and white dudes trying to blast their way through bad situations. Joan Watson isn’t so much the safe port in a storm as she is the lighthouse keeper who will lead you to safety while reminding you of how many bloody times she told you not to go out in the rain in the first place. Joan works as well as she does because she’s played by one of TV and modern movies’ most sinfully underrated actresses, one who has waited too damn long for a role with real meat on its bones. Throughout her career, Liu has often been the only Asian woman in the room and defined heavily on that basis. There have been roles major and minor, parts in movies and TV, and work beyond acting. What has endured with Liu has been immense affection from her fans, and a hunger to see her get what she truly deserves. I could be here all day talking about Liu, but I want to focus on three defining parts of her career.
Ally McBeal is viewed in curious terms by contemporary TV audiences and critics. The David E. Kelley dramedy of neurotic Boston lawyers was a huge hit in its early seasons. Beyond its commercial appeal, it was also a lightning rod for feminist critique. Time Magazine put Calista Flockhart’s face on its cover, next to Gloria Steinem, Susan B. Anthony and Betty Freidan, then dramatically ask ‘Is Feminism Dead?’ This flighty and highly exhausting woman with skirts smaller than mini was simultaneously a new breed of strong female protagonist and the embodiment of post-feminist ennui. Watching clips of the show now is equal parts fascinating and frustrating. The show comes so close to epiphanies on issues like workplace harassment, but everything is too concerned with creating a stylized rom-com that speaks for the times. By that, I mean they mostly just tall about sex. Everyone talks endlessly about SEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEX in Ally McBeal, but nothing seems particularly sexy. Every sexual conversation or moment of so-called passion feels like it’s fallen out of a Benny Hill sketch now. A lot if it is still very funny, when the focus is accurate. For a show that’s barely old enough to drink, Ally McBeal feels so painfully dated, even in the areas where progress was made.
Nowhere is that better demonstrated than in Liu’s character, Ling Woo. Liu joined the show in season 2, after Kelley wrote the role specifically for her following her failure to land the part of Nelle Porter (played by Portia de Rossi). Ling was sort of a villain, or at least the anti-Ally. Where McBeal was fragile and barely seemed to be hanging on at the best of times, Ling had no concerns with steamrolling everyone to get what she wanted. To put it mildly, she was portrayed as the ‘bitch’, the hard-ass whose entrance into a room was often accompanied by the musical cue of the Wicked Witch of the West. It took a solid season for Ling to get some sympathetic character arcs, and her portrayal was divisive with audiences. You either loved her tyrannical force of nature approach or you hated her callousness.
With Asian American viewers, the sentiments were similarly complicated. Liu remained one of the few Asian women on network TV with a genuinely prominent role. This was four years after Margaret Cho’s All American Girl premiered and was cancelled after one season. Kelley had taken the step of writing a role just for Liu, which meant something given how overwhelmingly white this Boston-set show was. She broke some stereotypes but reinforced a whole load of others. In the extensive scholarly work written on her character, Woo is described as everything from a heartless villain to an embodiment of the Dragon Lady trope to the stock ‘mysterious Asian mistress’ of undocumented sexual prowess. Darrell Hamamoto of the University of California, Davis, described Woo as ‘a neo-Orientalist masturbatory fantasy figure concocted by a white man whose job it is to satisfy the blocked needs of other white men who seek temporary escape from their banal and deadening lives by indulging themselves in a bit of visual cunnilingus while relaxing on the sofa.’ Ouch.
Liu is predictably excellent in the role, even when she’s tasked with thankless objectives (Ling growls a lot, which is very weird and discomfiting). She’s believably powerful and an absolute charisma magnet. Everyone in the show is a screaming stereotype of some sort but it’s Ling Woo whose depiction feels the most staggeringly dated in a show whose foundations have long since crumbled. You feel for Liu, who could have easily played the Calista Flockhart role with the required brittleness and screwball approach. Instead, she was defined almost exclusively by her race and whatever David E. Kelley thought of whenever he thought of Asian women.
During her run on Ally McBeal, the film roles began to get bigger and more mainstream, although they still heavily highlighted how few and far between the substantial roles were for Asian women. Even the best roles are still part of that narrow collection of tropes, such as Shanghai Noon and Kill Bill: Volume 1. In the latter, as O’Ren Ishii, Liu seems to be having the most fun. As the Chinese-Japanese American assassin turned head of the Tokyo Yakuza, Liu gets to be the typical Tarantino heroine: Straight out of a dude’s fantasies, but not without real feminine clout. Liu retains that steeliness from Ally McBeal but applies it with more eerie silence. O’Ren doesn’t raise her voice unless she absolutely has to, and the precision with which she calmly slices off a man’s head or orders someone’s death is palpable. As with most things Liu does, you spend all her screen-time wondering why she isn’t in every scene.
Oddly, the film that may be one of Liu’s most ground-breaking is her one in the two Charlie’s Angels films. McG’s reboot of the classic and giddily kitsch 70s series is the very embodiment of a problematic fave. They’re objectively not good films, with the second one presenting a new low in terms of the ‘Strong Female Character’ trope as written by horny dudes appealing to teenage boys. There’s lots of unnecessary slow-motion, lots of increasingly ridiculous costume changes, and lots of fight scenes that seem like they were choreographed by the Victoria’s Secret Runway team. Yet it’s all ridiculously fun too, hovering just on the right side of self-aware camp. At some points, the feel seems like a satirical version of itself, but then you can practically hear the studio executive demanding more shots of Cameron Diaz’s butt.
None of this sounds like an especially revolutionary prospect for Liu, but you also have to remember that this is the rare example of a role being played by an Asian woman that wasn’t written specifically for an Asian woman. Alex, the ‘sensible Angel’, is the one who gets shit done. There are moments of unnecessary Orientalism (really, you’re going to play Turning Japanese here?), but mostly, she’s not defined exclusively as ‘the Asian angel’. It’s hard to say this is total progress because it’s not like any of the other Angels have actual characterisation beyond one or two traits either. This is the era of action movies where ones centered on women are playing notions of empowerment but ones that are easy to sell to young boys who didn’t think Baywatch had enough slow-mo.
Liu has always worked consistently, even if the parts themselves had little to offer someone of her calibre or level of fame. Keep in mind that, between Ally McBeal and Charlie’s Angels, Liu was mega famous in the early 2000s. There’s an entire Futurama episode dedicated to the concept of her being the most obviously desirable woman of her era. Given the meteoric levels of fame that followed her co-stars in Charlie’s Angels, you’d think the opportunities would have increased for Liu. Alas, she still found herself mostly playing Asian femme fatales or supporting roles in some serious schlock. TV and voice work offered more, including her part in the Kung Fu Panda series of films and TV episodes (she does both the English and Mandarin dubs for her character), as well as Disney’s oddly popular extended universe of Tinkerbell stories. She had the leading role in Cashmere Mafia, which lasted a short one season, then joined the cast of Dirty Sexy Money in its second season, before spending 10 episodes on Southland.
And then there was Elementary.
I remember when CBS announced their own modern-day version of Sherlock Holmes, and how much its mere existence seemed to anger the always zealous fanbase of BBC’s Sherlock. Even the creators of that show couldn’t help but make their own digs at it. Liu’s casting announcement as Joan Watson - a rare gender flip for Holmes’s trusty companion - seemed to inspire equal parts devotion and anger. I remember Victoria Coren Mitchell’s vile think-piece on the subject where she confessed to wanting to show Liu’s face in a bowl of pea soup. Some fans hated the idea of losing any homoerotic subtext between Holmes and Watson (because we all saw how well that ended on Sherlock), while others complained that the stories simply weren’t suited to an American procedural format. Mostly, the ire was directed at Liu. How dare she take on this iconic role and make it different, they said, as if Watson hadn’t gone through as many reinventions as the title character.
I was always excited for Elementary, but especially Joan Watson, and I knew she was the Watson for me from the very first episode. Joan, a former doctor who lost her nerve after a patient died, has taken up employment as a sober companion for a brilliant but tempestuous British freelance detective who has just gotten out of rehab and moved to Manhattan. As is typical with Sherlock Holmes, he rebuffs her help, which has been mandated by his father, and goes back to his consultancy work for the NYPD, forcing Joan to tag along. Immediately, she becomes an indelible part of his work, even if he isn’t ready to admit it. There’s a wonderful scene in the pilot where Holmes is badgering a possible witness and Joan ends his borderline bullying with the line, ‘You’re done, go wait in the car.’ Like a toddler, he stomps off and Joan’s more empathetic approach gets the information they need from the witness.
It’s the perfect summary of Sherlock and Joan’s relationship in those early episodes: He goes too far, she calls him on his shit and he has to deal with that. Sherlock was always a show that bent over backwards to excuse Holmes’s supposed genius (the fucker never wears gloves at crime scenes!), and there’s only so many times you can watch a man publicly humiliate people with no true consequences before you decide his ‘genius’ isn’t worth it. Elementary had the savvy to dig into what made the Holmes and Watson relationship work so well, and tease that out with a modern dynamic. Joan is an accomplished Asian-American woman who has her own life outside of Sherlock, her own skills as a detective that he doesn’t possess, and a drive for helping others that has its foundations in empathy and not smugness. Sherlock and Joan respect one another, and you feel that palpable energy in every scene they share.
Jonny Lee Miller is a great Sherlock, but this is Lucy Liu’s show all the way. Finally, a role worthy of her talents! Joan is just as brilliant as Sherlock and the show is smart enough to understand that. She has excellent chemistry with Miller, with the pair playing the dynamic as one of affectionate antagonism combined with mutual admiration and willingness to help one another, but no tolerance for bullshit. Sherlock, a spoiled rich boy and drug addict who has trouble admitting when he needs assistance, embraces Joan’s abilities and wants to nurture them beyond their usefulness in his detective work. Joan, in turn, finds a strong friend and mentor with this figure who she still has to parent on occasion, and they work as well apart as they do together. There’s just enough steel in Liu’s performance, especially in that first season when she is in full sober companion mode, but the warmth and wit is where she blossoms. Watson is so often the straight man/woman to Sherlock’s madness, and Liu has the perfect deadpan for those moments, but she also gets to be in on the joke.
TV has offered more opportunities to actresses of a certain age over the past few years than anything cinema is doing, but it’s still considered more critically legitimate to do a cable drama or mini-series where the awards potential is obvious. The TV landscape is too crowded nowadays for the simple network procedural to get its due, but the lack of acclaim and true critical analysis of Liu’s work is still a disappointment.
Elementary is on its 6th season and still going strong. Liu has begun working behind the camera, directing several episodes, and off-screen, she’s expanded her work as an artist (which is really beautiful, and you should definitely check out her website). Liu seems to have found a niche that suits her and one that lets her do the thing she’s best at. Progress has been made with Asian representation on American TV but it’s still mostly happening in drips, meaning that Liu, as she was almost 20 years ago, remains one of the most visible Asian women on the small-screen. Her appeal endures, but the entertainment world’s inability to get that remains frustratingly in place. But we’ll always have Joan Watson, and she makes everything better.
(Header photograph courtesy of Getty Images. All gifs from Giphy)