This one takes some doing. To analyze seven(ish) different performances to find the quintissential Watson means understanding what makes Watson tick. As I see it, there are five characteristics that are more-or-less resonant in every Watson:
- Sense of Honor
- Investigative Mind
- Protective Instinct
- Hero Worship
- Exasperation with Holmes
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the best performance is the one that blends these traits most equally. So, since I didn’t have anything better to do this evening, I made charts!
Dulé Hill (Psych) — Gus is a fantastic character, and I love him to death. But as a Watson, he is simply too much of an equal to Shawn, so he can’t stand the shenanigans. Neither the hero worship nor the protectiveness are there.
Kathryn Erbe (Law & Order: CI) — Detective Eames is also too much of an equal to Goren, but for a different reason. She puts up with everything he does, but she also pulls her weight on the investigative side. Here again, the hero worship is nearly zero.
Robert Sean Leonard (House) — Wilson serves as more of a foil for House than a partner. His contributions to the mysteries of the week are tangential at best, since he’s an oncologist, not a generalist like House. But, like all Watsons, he remains House’s best friend to the end. (Literally.)
Bitty Schram/Traylor Howard (Monk) — Yes, these are two different actors playing two different characters (Sharona Fleming and Natalie Teeger). And while the characters certainly weren’t carbon copies, their role remained the same: they had to be Adrian’s support system. They kept the guy upright and walking around so he could solve crime. And while they were both more protective than anything else, they continued to fire pretty well on all the other cylinders. They’re my (collective) pick for the best of the Holmes Lite Watsons.
Jude Law (Guy Ritchie film series) — For all I know, Law’s portrayal of Watson was the most accurate to the original source material. That said, I still think he played it so much as the uptight military officer that the rest of the performance (other than his annoyance at Holmes) suffered.
Lucy Liu (Elementary) — When making this close of an adaptation, making Watson a woman is a leap. Thankfully, they aren’t turning this into some kind of Remington Steele/ Moonlighting ripoff where it’s about a romantic involvement between the leads. It’s all about the cases. As Sherlock’s one-time sober companion, her protective instinct is high, but she’s also amazed by his skills, and more importantly, has specifically chosen to let him mentor her. For those reasons, she very nearly makes it to the top of the list.
Martin Freeman (Sherlock) — We have a winner. Freeman’s Watson hits the sweet spot right in the middle of all of these characteristics. In the first episode, he was certainly more in the “sense of honor” mode, but it didn’t take long for his protective instincts to emerge. He often gets to go off on his own investigative tangents, which are usually helpful, if not definitive. His continuing blog (a nice nod to the first person narratives of the original stories) shows that, even as they’ve grown into a team, he continues to revere Holmes. A truly landmark performance from a guy who’s already nailed two other iconic characters of literature.