Last week saw the announcement that Lucy Liu had been cast as Dr. Watson in a new American Sherlock Holmes TV show titled Elementary. Yes, this is odd news, in many ways, but I found myself sort of wistful upon hearing it. I shall now spend entirely too much space explaining why.
First, let me back up a bit. (See?) The Sherlock Holmes books, and indeed the entire Arthur Conan Doyle back catalog, was actually my gateway drug into literary fanaticism. And while I may not be an official Sherlockian (that’s an actual thing! Which I am not!) I bow to no one in my hard-core Doyleanism. Seriously, I could once recite vast swathes of The White Company; I even read the dude’s multi-volume history of the Boer War as a teen, sought it out in antiquarian bookstores in DC and everything; in fact, I often carry antique volumes of his books around with me, like some rare, scary breed of loser.
I note all this to contextualize the fact that I am totally fine with all these various re-interpretations and modernizations of Holmes. (I wrote something for Bookforum back in the day about how all Holmes movies and TV shows are essentially reinventions; even many of those classic Basil Rathbone films had Holmes and Watson fighting the Nazis.) To be fair, I’m personally not too keen on the Guy Ritchie Holmes movies, but that’s a matter of execution, not conception; theoretically, an ass-kicking, slo-mo-friendly Holmes is fine by me.
And among these iterations, I love the updated BBC Sherlock, about which I was skeptical at first. It expertly carries over the original stories' sense of Victorian menace into a modern, hyper-connected world, and for all the liberties it takes, it also has a kind of low-level moral outrage that is so clearly part of Conan Doyle's voice. But perhaps the thing about the show that tickles me most is that the director responsible for most of the episodes, Paul McGuigan, is a guy who has never quite gotten his due cinematically. I’ve always had a soft spot for him – I liked The Acid House and Gangster No. 1, and, while it’s far from perfect, anyone who attempts an adaptation of Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play (which McGuigan did with The Reckoning) is crazy in all the right ways.
Which brings me to Sundance. Specifically, my first day of Sundance 2006, which was actually my very first Sundance. I was covering the festival for Nerve.com, and I had just attended a morning press screening of Lucky Number Slevin, McGuigan’s lame, hyper-stylized gangster comedy starring Josh Hartnett, Ben Kingsley, Morgan Freeman, Bruce Willis, and, yes, Lucy Liu. Being the kind of energy-filled, fresh-faced eager beaver I was at the time and not at all the jaded homunculus I am now, I rushed back to the busy press lounge to find a wireless signal and type up my disappointed review of the film.
As I was typing, I chose not to pay too much attention to a couple of gentlemen who came and stood behind me. I also chose not to pay too much attention to the third guy who joined them for a bit, or to the hushed tones with which they spoke. Then the third guy came and sat at my table, politely asking if the seat across from me was taken. I told him he could sit (he was already sitting), and kept writing. After a few seconds of uncomfortable silence, he finally asked me if I’d seen anything good at Sundance yet.
“Well, it’s my first day, but there were some festival films I saw in New York before I came here,” I said. I mentioned a couple of them (including the documentary Iraq in Fragments, which I was very much in love with at the time).
“So, not very keen on Slevin then?” he asked.
“No, not really. I didn’t care for it,” I said.
And then I stopped, because I suddenly realized I was speaking to Paul Fucking McGuigan. What’s more, I realized Paul Fucking McGuigan had just read parts of my pan of his film over my shoulder. At the urging, perhaps, of his producers, who had also read it over my shoulder before he arrived. (Seriously, producers, WTF?)
“Oh, shit. You’re Paul McGuigan, aren’t you?” I squealed.
He smiled, bitterly.
“But I actually really like your other films,” I said.
He shrugged, bitterly.
“I just was a little disappointed by this one,” I continued.
“It tested through the roof,” he muttered, bitterly.
There were other things I could have said then, about how many times I’ve seen Gangster No. 1, and about how insanely difficult it must have been to handle material as tricky as Morality Play, and about how Wicker Park (that’s right, he directed Wicker Park) was actually a lot better than its reviews seemed to suggest. And, really, what I should have done was just to shrug myself and said, “Sorry, dude, them’s the breaks. You make a bad movie, you get a bad review. Maybe next time.”
But no, what I said was: “You got the best performance out of Lucy Liu that I’ve ever seen.”
“Yeah, well, she’s great,” he waved, bitterly. (He was actually being very cool about all this, considering that the only reason he was even in the press office was because he’d just arrived at Sundance and was picking up his credentials, and already he was being faced with some dork panning his film. That said, I wonder if he ever realized that my mixed-negative review of Lucky Number Slevin was actually one of the nicer notices it wound up getting at the festival.)
But I really did mean what I said about Lucy Liu. At this point I should interject that I had probably spent a good several years in the early 2000s watching pretty much anything and everything in Ms. Liu’s oeuvre, a period of my life best left unmentioned. And it had always bugged me that she so often came off as stiff, while attempts to make her cheery and/or fun-loving almost invariably felt forced. You always got the sense that somewhere in there was a terrific actress; every once in a while she showed real flashes of inspiration. (She was great in Kill Bill Vol. 1, but that called for what was essentially an elegant, one-note performance.)
But Paul McGuigan had nailed it in Lucky Number Slevin. She really is a bright, disarming presence in the film, and sets a perfect counter-tone of vivacious possibility. Amid the deranged tangle of gangsterism at the movie’s heart, she represents escape, wit, happiness, joy – and she does so beautifully.
So, um, where am I going with this?
Not sure. It just seems odd to me that here Liu is, getting ready to star as Watson in what will certainly be a weak U.S. series based on Holmes (it’s CBS, for crying out loud – they do Blue Bloods!). And there McGuigan is, over in the U.K., knocking them dead with these great episodes of Sherlock. The ships-passing-in-the-night-ness of it all is almost heartbreaking. And there’s little chance of collaboration, since apparently the producers of Sherlock are royally peeved about this Brooklyn-set modern-day American Holmes.
Oh, and I wanted to post this photo that McGuigan graciously let me take of him flipping me off, back on that day in 2006.