Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Why everyone who owns a television should watch "Sherlock"

Yes, I know, I haven't been around in a while. Between work, my birthday, Christmas as well as all of the wealth of interesting bits and bobs that I acquired for my birthday and for Christmas, not to mention my weekly writing duties for the Superman Homepage, I've let "Feeling the Fury" slip out from under me. I never even got around to fixing the new logo. I'm going to try and focus on posting something every Wednesday, as I had originally planned to do.

Anyway, let's get to the reason we're all here.

"Sherlock" is one of the best products of television entertainment I've ever seen.

To give you a bit of background, I wouldn't consider myself much of a "Sherlockian". I've read exactly one of the novels, none of the short stories (even though I have a complete collection up in my room) and with the exception of bits and pieces of the older Basil Rathbone films, the only Sherlock Holmes films I've seen are the only-okay Robert Downey Jr. films and the hilarious Asylum Films mockbuster rip-off where Holmes fights a robotic dinosaur (I have also seen "Basil: The Great Mouse Detective", like a million times; does that count?). At the same time though, as Holmes has held an unusually comfortable spot in the public domain (and has thus been referenced and included in countless types of other stories across multiple generations of popular culture) for the past hundred years or so, I'm fairly up to speed on the various trappings of his stories: private/consulting detective, deerstalker, magnifying glass, Watson, Baker Street, Victorian London, Moriarty.

This is all anyone needs to enjoy "Sherlock", BBC's fabulous reinvention of The World's Greatest Detective (sorry Bruce).

The intention of the show was to resurrect the original intention of the stories: to tell great detective mysteries starring an intriguing anti-hero. Most of us know that while Sherlock Holmes is certainly still joined at the hip with the term "detective story" it's also fair to say that at the sound of his name, we immediately conjure up images of a foggy London lit only by the murky glow of gaslight; the sounds of the clip-clop of horses pulling carriages on the cobblestone roads. The legend of Holmes has been unintentionally bogged down by the bygone era in which his adventures take place. And that's where "Sherlock" comes in. Where Conan Doyle's original stories were set in the troubled, cynical time of the 19th century, BBC's "Sherlock" is situated in the identically troubled, cynical era of the 21st century, gloriously fetishising all that makes modern life so much fun (smartphones, the Internet, shiny buildings, mp3 players, the insanity of the media, etc).

But simply pointing out the environment of the series doesn't really do it justice. It adds to the atmosphere that "Sherlock" lives somewhere we can actually believe in, but what of the man himself? The delightfully-named Benedict Cumberbatch (the fact that he has such an elegant name actually gives plausibility to the concept of someone being named 'Sherlock Holmes' in the 21st century) breathes new life into the sleuth, resurrecting all of his classic mannerisms, with a more appropriately relevant manner of speech. Cumberbatch's Sherlock is an incredibly difficult individual to put up with, as he (quite correctly) believes himself to be above and beyond all of the 'idiots' with whom he associates (even his closest friends and allies). One of the show's trademarks is how it presents us with Sherlock's unique brand of "Detective Vision" by stylishly popping text up on the screen so that we the viewers have some understanding of the web-like spasms of deduction that are bouncing around Holmes' mind. Cumberbatch is second-to-none and delivering lengthy conclusions and deductions at lightning-fast speed to the other characters; for a lesser-actor it would mean death-on-arrival for their career, as the speeches could potentially come across as boring exposition. In the hands of Cumberbatch, nothing isn't interesting; nothing isn't relevant to the case.

Possibly my favourite element of Cumberbatch's Holmes are his scolding remarks. In the first episode "A Study in Pink" (a loose update of the very first Holmes story; the one I actually did read the whole way through, "A Study in Scarlet"), while trying to deduce a killer's location, Sherlock shouts at everyone to stop moving and stop thinking, so that he can think. What really gets me though, is when he sick-burns forensic scientist Anderson (who hates Sherlock), asking him to turn around and face the wall.

While Cumberbatch is a grand, delightful, sexy star, beautifully English and thoroughly credible; the show needs a stronger foundation than just its title character. In this regard, Martin Freeman's John Watson is the secret weapon of "Sherlock". As the original comedy sidekick, Watson (like Robin, the Boy Wonder) has always been a bit problematic to portray in any interesting way. He's really only there as a talking-board, off whom Holmes can bounce ideas out loud. Traditionally, he's allowed us the viewers to have someone we can relate to, someone who's mostly clueless to the art of detection and criminology (in the original stories, most of them were actually written as if they were being told by Watson himself). He's the likable everyman, helping the dashing hero. He's Jimmy Olson, he's Rick Jones, he's you or me. At the same time though, Conan Doyle did envision him as something of a romanticised version of you or me. In order to make it remotely credible that Watson would accompany Holmes, he was given a past as an army doctor from Afghanistan.

The "Sherlock" series has expanded upon this idea by making him removed and isolated from everyday life upon his return from the war. Accompanying Sherlock has given him a new lease on life and has returned him to the adventures of war he sorely craves, despite himself. While John (as he is more commonly referred to, in this less-formal incarnation) does certainly provide comic relief, more often than not it's actually at the eccentric Sherlock's expense, rather than the other way around. John is the one who has to key Sherlock in on tact and decency; how to act around people without repelling them completely. A lot of the time, he also has to fill him in on elements of popular culture (Sherlock's never seen a James Bond film, according to John's wonderful meta-fictional blog; Sherlock and Molly have similar sites) and even basic common knowledge like the fact that Earth revolves around the Sun (borrowed from the original stories). John's real, human strength is his total devotion and faith in Sherlock against all odds, even in the face of death.

Just like the viewers, John never stops believing that Sherlock's going to save the day; but thanks to Martin Freeman's excellent, understated performance, we never have any trouble accepting John's alliance with him. If anyone deserves an acting award for "Sherlock", it's Martin Freeman. While Cumberbatch is tremendous at long, complicated, lightning-fast dialogue and wiry, electrified movement; he is still basically chewing big lumps of London scenery in every act. Freeman's performance has to remain quiet and utterly realistic at all times, while the viewers can never forget his military background. Everything in Freeman's performance is beautiful in its subtlety, from the way he moves and holds himself, to the way he restrains his speech at times.

Martin Freeman's earlier role as Tim Canterbury in the original version of "The Office" probably shouldn't go unmentioned, as John and Tim share many common traits. Just like Tim, John is the only recognisably 'normal' person in the crazy world of "Sherlock". Indeed, John Watson almost seems like the kind of man Tim Canterbury always dreamed of being, if he could ever get his act together and escape the dreadful Slough branch of Wernham & Hogg Paper Company. One last thing about Freeman's Watson is that unlike the devilishly sexy Jude Law or the cartoonish Nigel Bruce, Martin Freeman actually looks like the deceptively tough everymen you see on Sky News on the frontlines of Iraq or Afghanistan.

**MINOR SPOILERS (for people who haven't seen the First Series)**

The supporting cast of "Sherlock" are also great; all of them being memorable in their own way. Rupert Graves adds a little bit more competence to Detective Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard, who always came across as a complete buffoon in other incarnations. Una Stubbs is Mrs. Hudson, landlady and reluctant housekeeper of the dynamic duo of Sherlock and John, and effortlessly comes across as the kind of progressive, modern-thinking Nana everyone has. "Sherlock" executive producer Mark Gatiss actually plays Sherlock's shady brother Mycroft, leaning from comedic to very serious styles of characterisation. Mycroft's involvement with various branches of the Government both on British shores and abroad is what drives much of the over-arching story of the series (at least in the first two series, anyway). Finally there's Molly Hooper, an original character created for the series, played by Loo Brealey. Molly is the long-suffering, dreadfully sweet young girl who works at the morgue at St. Barts' Hospital and whose schoolgirl weakness for Baker St. detectives allows Sherlock to use her place of work as he sees fit. In a lesser programme, a character such as this would be used and abused as a throwaway plot device; however Molly is developed beautifully throughout the two sets of three stories.

Finally, there's Andrew Scott as Moriarty, the one point of contention for viewers, where the cast is concerned. Truthfully, I can see why people aren't enamoured with him, but I view him as an acquired taste. I might be wrong, but I believe Scott is the only actor to have played Moriarty who has actually been Irish. Not only this, but in "Sherlock" he is given the manner of a cocky, pompous young brat who stinks of money, privilege and excessive intelligence, the likes of which I encountered so many times as I grew up. For some people, he comes across as hammy, but for me, he never ceases to be sinister and always gives off creepy vibes of total insanity.


If there is anything I could possibly criticise where the show is concerned, it would only be regarding the actual plots of the 90-minute episodes. The first episode "A Study in Pink" had a wonderfully exciting, pulpy plot to it that was plausible, easy enough to follow and connected well with the other episodes. "The Blind Banker" however, was a lot weaker, much more convoluted and had a rushed feeling about it. The first series finished off with "The Great Game" which brought back the first episode's excellence and reminded us why this was such a high-quality series.

The second series has been a triumph from beginning to end. I liken the step-up in scope between the first and second series as similar to "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight". Like "Begins", the first series of "Sherlock" was a fun, character-driven adventure story that had us cheering the whole way through, certain that the heroes would emerge victorious. Series 2 of "Sherlock" was more epic in scope, with far grander villainous plots, greater stakes and a far lesser certainty that everything was going to turn out okay for Sherlock and John. I don't want to give too much away, but the finale "The Reichenbach Fall" was very similar both in story and tone to "The Dark Knight". Like "The Blind Banker" the only episode of the second series that could be regarded as 'filler' was once again the second episode, but luckily enough, it was an excellent filler episode at that, and a tremendous update of the most well-known Holmes story "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (renamed here as "The Hounds of Baskerville").

For me, the most frustrating aspect of "Sherlock" has got nothing to do with the actual series or its level of quality. It's got more to do with the fact that it exists at a time when another, very different version of Sherlock Holmes is conquering the silver screen.

Don't get me wrong, Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes" films are a fun waste of two-and-half hours and there certainly are worse superhero films (I consider Holmes a superhero, the same way I consider James Bond a superhero, by the way). There's some spectacular action and combat in them and as much as I'd love to at times, it's impossible to dislike Robert Downey Jr. when he's onscreen. Unfortunately, unlike "Sherlock" and other versions of Holmes, Ritchie's movies aren't really detective stories. They're much more based in an adventure format, with fisticuffs and derring-do the main centrepieces; the focus on detective-work is usually only used to advance Holmes and Watson from one explosive setpiece to another, with no real mystery to solve. In a lot of ways, this reminded me of the kind of detective-work that takes place in a Batman story, where the question is rarely "whodunnit" but more "we know the Joker/Riddler/Two-Face/Whoever did it and we have to find them using DETECTIVE WORK". In fact, in the wonderful side-missions of "Arkham City" where Batman is trying to track down the mercenary Deadshot, there's a scene where he finds the remains of a sniper rifle Deadshot used and it's almost identical to a scene in "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" where Holmes tries to track the movements of one of Moriarty's cronies the same way. Again though, they're enjoyable films. It's just very frustrating that millions of people are watching them, and may not even be aware of the vastly superior BBC series. Indeed, I was having a conversation with someone at work recently about how much I enjoyed "Sherlock" for about five minutes and he agreed with me wholeheartedly, adding that it was a wonderful time in the cinema and he couldn't wait to see Robert Downey Jr's next film!

Returning to the topic of "Sherlock" itself, the creators have already announced that the third series is definitely happening, as soon as Cumberbatch and Freeman (who are deservedly on their way to Hollywood fame and fortune as the villain of the new "Star Trek" and the star of "The Hobbit" respectively) are available. Both stars have expressed an eagerness to return for more Baker St. hijinks. I'll be waiting with my hilariously-out-of-place deerstalker and my stylish £1,500 Belstaff coat at the ready.

By the way: Have I mentioned how awesome the music in the show is? It's awesome. Thanks to David "James Bond movies" Arnold for the epic opening theme and the awesome action theme that I have as my ringtone.


  1. I remember being really annoyed the first time you started going on about how crap the RDJ version was in comparison to the BBC version. I think I've already said this, but having actually now seen BBC's Sherlock I'm quite willing to say as many times as necessary that I was as utterly wrong as its possible to be. The BBC version is, in almost every meaningful way, a far, FAR superior use of the source material. Thank God for the public domain!

  2. Good boy. Now, go and watch the remaining Harry Potter films and be wrong about those, too!

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