What would Sherlock Holmes be on screen without his Dr. Watson? How many movies or TV shows can you recall that featured Sherlock without his faithful physician companion? And if you do recall any, were they good? Sherlock gets all the credit for the quality of a Holmes movie or TV show and probably more blame than he deserves for a bad one. (Except in the case of the Guy Ritchie movies in which Robert Downey’s insufferable, unbearable and inexplicable take on Sherlock deserves all the blame for the unwatchability of the franchise.) Only recently has it become apparent that no matter how fascinating a character a good actor is able to make Sherlock out to be, the entire enterprise threatens to come crashing down if he is not given adequate support by his Dr. Watson. With that revelation in place, it’s past due to take a look at the best and the worst Dr. Watsons in movie and TV history.
The Best Dr. Watsons
David Burke/Edward Hardwicke
If Jeremy Brett is the greatest Sherlock Holmes ever seen on film–and he is–then by the very nature of the quality of those productions, his Dr. Watson would have to rank pretty high. Just imagine for a moment if Jeremy Brett had been teamed with an actor who could not keep up with his brilliance? Brett’s performance would almost certainly have suffered over time and the overall quality of the show would definitely have been lower. I prefer Brett’s first Dr. Watson, David Burke, who appeared in only the first series of Sherlock Holmes stories. He was replaced for the remainder by Edward Hardwicke. My preference for Burke is based on the fact that he was funnier, had a little bit better chemistry and managed to create a Watson who was a tip of the hat to the traditional interpretation of Watson as a bit of bumbler without actually being nearly as stupid as portrayed by Nigel Bruce. Hardwicke is a solid Watson, but not as much fun.
If you had not been convinced that Robert Duvall was one of the most versatile film actors ever by the time “The Seven Percent Solution” came out, then surely his performance as Dr. Watson opened your eyes. Duvall’s Watson was one of the first major attempts to close the shutters on the image of Watson as blithering idiot burned into the consciousness of a couple of generations who grew up on the movie series featuring Nigel Bruce.
Kingsley played a Dr. John Watson who is actually the brains behind Sherlock who is just a fancy front played by an actor. Who is played by actor Michael Caine. This means that Kingsley gets to play a Watson at odds with everything we have come to know about the character to that point. This freedom can be either a blessing or a curse to an actor. Like Duvall, Kingsley has proven his range and so it should not come as a surprise to find out that he met the challenge head-on and created a Watson unlike any other before while still somehow maintaining the central essence of the character.
I have always argued that if it were possible to take the horrid scripts and mind-boggling awful direction of the Guy Ritchie movies about Sherlock Holmes and make anything even remotely coherent out of them, it would include putting Jude Law in the Sherlock role and giving Robert Downey, Jr. the job of delivering drugs to the crew. You want to know just how good Jude Law is as Dr. Watson? He alone comes out of these movies virtually untainted by the breathtakingly repulsive work done by Downey and Ritchie. If Jude Law had the benefit of a Benedict Cumberbatch or Jonny Lee Miller as his Sherlock, he may have wound up being the definitive Watson to Jeremy Brett’s definitive Holmes.
Here is the very model of a case where the Sherlock gets all the credit. Benedict Cumberbatch is great as a modern day updating of Sherlock, but would he be as interesting without the capable of support of Martin Freeman. In fact, I would go so far as to say that Freeman is a bigger improvement over previous Watsons than Cumberbatch is as an improvement over previous Holmes. And if you question the validity of that theory, then just imagine Cumberbatch stuck with a Watson of the caliber of another present-day present-day incarnation of Mr. Holmes.
The Worst Dr. Watson
This entire article is the result of being incapable of not noticing or ignoring the deleterious effect on a standout Sherlock that a truly appalling Dr. Watson. Yes, the legacy of Dr. Watson as a fumbling, bumbling embodiment of intellectual mediocrity existing merely to sharpen into focus the cranial capacity of Sherlock Holmes trace back specifically to Nigel Bruce. Bruce’s Watson is almost entirely a waste of human flesh, but not entirely. Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson is the very embodiment of loyalty and he does bring a certain amount of humor–however tiresome it may become–to a Sherlock series that take themselves remarkably serious. While I would not wish a night of binge viewing the Watson that Bruce plays to the Sherlock of Basil Rathbone on anyone, I would recommend that marathon before exposing anyone to a YouTube collection of Lucy Liu’s Watson scenes in “Elementary.”
One could forward the argument that Lucy Liu is the worst Watson ever simply by virtue of being in the same show as one of the best Sherlocks ever. If Jeremy Brett is the traditional Victorian-era Sherlock Holmes by which all others will forever be judged, then Jonny Lee Miller’s modern Sherlock is the one by which all others will be judged lacking, including Benedict Cumberbatch.
Or, rather, he should be. But I fear that in the long run the accomplishment of Jonny Lee Miller’s genuinely groundbreaking interpretation of Sherlock will fall behind that of Cumberbatch. And the reason is that Cumberbatch has a great Watson in Martin Freeman that helps elevate the quality of the entire show. Poor Jonny Lee Miller is not only saddled with a Lucy Liu who brings nothing new to Watson, but with a Lucy Liu who is getting increasingly more screen time. It would be bad enough if that screen time were devoted to the utterly dreary backstory of Joan Watson that succeeds only bringing the mystery at the heart of each episode to a screeching halt. But the first few episodes of the second season of “Elementary” adds insult to the injury of watching Watson’s backstory by actually having Lucy Liu discover and present evidence. Scenes that should be the sole domain of Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock.
Lucy Liu’s increasingly distracting lack of chemistry and inability to define the character of Watson for a new generation has already started to become an inexorable drag on the quality of “Elementary.” Such is the brilliance of Jonny Lee Miller that it is not at all inconceivable to imagine him being the answer to those three questions that opened this article. An “Elementary” featuring a Sherlock without a Watson would fulfill what the casting of Lucy Liu was intended, but failed, to do: give us a Sherlock Holmes show we’ve never seen before. If Lucy Liu continues in the role of Watson, “Elementary” may well become a show we plan on never seeing again.