The Pleasure of the ‘Unnecessary’: BBC’s Sherlock

The Pleasure of the ‘Unnecessary’: BBC/PBS’ Sherlock

July 31st, 2010 / October 24th, 2010

Before I watched it, I found Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ Sherlock [which premiered tonight on PBS in the U.S., but which aired on the BBC back in July] to be quite perplexing.

Trailer: BBC’s Sherlock

First of all, I wondered whether we really needed another take on Sherlock Holmes considering that Guy Ritchie’s movie (which I thought was solid, but unremarkable) was released only seven months ago. Now, before you jump on me, I became aware in doing some research that the original pilot for this series was shot long before the movie debuted, but considering how late the series is arriving it was nonetheless the first thought which popped into my mind.

Second, does Steven Moffat really need to write for another eccentric problem solver? The Doctor is, in many ways, a detective in his own right, along with being both an outcast and a genius, so one can’t help but feel that Moffat is developing a type (albeit one that, in the case of the Doctor, I quite enjoy).

And third, and this is speaking from my North American experience, television is littered with series which owe much of their structure to Conan Doyle’s work. House has both the eccentric problem solving and the Holmes/Watson dynamic in House and Wilson, The Mentalist has the eccentric, observational crime solver with the archnemesis, and every single crime procedural on television has the whole “crime solving” part of things.

While it may have been received differently had it made it out before Ritchie’s film, or before Moffat took over Doctor Who, the fact remains that Sherlock is emerging in an environment where it feels “unnecessary” for those of us not entirely familiar with the source material, which can lead one’s mind to words like “disposable” (which, for North American viewers accustomed to 22-episode seasons, isn’t helped by the short three-episode order). So, it is perhaps that much more impressive that I really enjoyed Sherlock, a sentiment shared by the British audience which helped it garner some pretty substantial ratings which could get it a second season late next year.

It’s a well-made show building from a well-made premise, which may not make it “necessary” but which certainly makes it something I am glad to have on my television, and hope to have on my television in the future.

There is no single element which makes Sherlock successful: while there are a number of elements which I’m sure outlets will pick up as buzzworthy (like Sherlock’s ambiguous sexuality, for example), the fact of the matter is that the series works because it is well constructed. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are brilliantly cast, “A Study in Pink” is well-constructed to introduce the characters and the world around them, and the core dynamic between Holmes and Watson has been precisely constructed. We could talk about how Watson is a recovering veteran of the Afghanistan war suffering from a psychosomatic limp, and how his interaction with Holmes helps him overcome that limp, but for me it’s less about the character definitions than it is the characters interactions. What I love about their dynamic is that Watson is more interested than repelled by Holmes’ eccentricities, desperate to recapture some of the adrenaline which he misses sitting in his small, sterile room. Using Watson as a point of entry is very smart, as it allows us to share his experience of being compelled by Holmes’ brilliance while weighing it with the warnings given to him by anyone else he comes into contact with (including the not-so-villainous Mycroft). It’s just a strong way to enter into this relationship, one which lies at the heart of the series and has the potential to develop into something with great longevity.

While my most positive responses to the series come from those subtle character interactions, this doesn’t mean that some of the other bits of “reinvention” weren’t successful. There are a number of stylistic touches which attempt to offer us a sense of how Sherlock’s mind is working, showing us visual representations of his thought process through text, image, and sounds. I’m always a bit wary of this, but what I truly love about Sherlock’s style in this regard is that it changes depending on the situation. Sometimes it takes the form of more traditional bouts of memory, seeing certain objects and piecing together the solution to the puzzle, while other times it becomes highly contextual: the graphics are different when he thinks the scrawled writing is “Rache” rather than Rachel, and while his thought process takes the form of a dropdown menu when going through the woman’s phone his mind becomes a chaotic series of street signs when racing across the rooftops after the cab which pulled in front of the restaurant. It’s the fact that his mind changes, that it isn’t always stuck in the same mode, which makes this Sherlock so interesting. Much like Matt Smith’s Doctor, there is an predictable unpredictability to Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, and it keeps “A Study in Pink” fresh even as it goes through what one would consider your traditional pilot exposition.

I know that often we tend to consider “traditional” to be some sort of putdown, especially as it relates to crime procedurals, but I don’t think that this need be the case. Obviously, Moffat and Gatiss are going in a very different direction than Ritchie, and this is unlikely to share any thematic similarities to Doctor Who, so it’s easy for the show to move past once those comparisons once you finish the first installment. However, to avoid being compared with modern crime procedurals would require the series to abandon Arthur Conan Doyle’s original vision, something which would be far more problematic than the series being compared with House or The Mentalist. And, again, there is no single element which overcomes these comparisons to make Sherlock stand out from the crowd: collectively, the choices Moffat and Gatiss made result in a pilot which seems to jauntily waltz around conventions as opposed to tiptoeing around them. It’s dark without losing its sense of play, and Cumberbutch’s Holmes is arrogant without being unlikeable. It does many things you might expect of an attempt to “reboot” a classic property without losing the essence of the original story, feeling comfortably traditional while nonetheless feeling as if it belongs in the twenty-first century.

Not everything, of course, is perfect: while I see what Moffat was doing in terms of introducing Mycroft in a way which made us presume him to be Moriarty, it ends up feeling a bit too manipulative, especially since his role within the government isn’t really tapped into within the first installment. It’s possible that Mycroft (played by Gatiss) could evolve into a key character with time, but within the pilot the character seems too functional, a barrier for Watson to get past before connecting with Holmes rather than part of the series’ world. I think it could work out better in future outings, where his influence is less ominous and instead more collaborative, which would be quite logical now that the ruse surrounding Moriarty has been dealt with.

It’s one of the elements in the pilot which I am sure will work better in future installments, like tomorrow night’s “Blind Banker.” Otherwise, there’s always the chance that Moffat’s writing style was what really drew me into the characters, or that the effort to introduce the series’ various stylistic elements in the pilot will be impossible to live up to in a second episode. And, it’s quite possible that the compelling nature of Watson and Holmes’ first interactions won’t be as powerful now that they’ve already met, and the sense of forward momentum will be lessened. However, it seems to be that what has been built is a really solid foundation: the series may never be able to recapture the strength of “A Study in Pink” when it comes to introducing characters, but there’s enough strength here that I have every faith future episodes will tap into potential which as of yet remains only hinted at.

I don’t believe there’s any official word on the series’ arrival in the U.S. (Canada’s Showcase will be airing the three-episode series in September), but I would suggest that people give it a look when it arrives – it’s smart, it’s sophisticated, it’s funny, and whether it ends up emerging as a weekly series or as event programming it’s the kind of intelligent television which I hope we get more of in the future (even if it means going to the past for the source material).

Cultural Observations

  • I’ve read Hound of the Baskervilles, but otherwise all of my experience with Sherlock has been (limited) pop cultural depictions, so forgive me if the review doesn’t go into every detail drawn from the source material.
  • If I had to offer a preference, I think Moffat and Gatiss should take a page from Davies’ book and do the next Sherlock series as a five-night miniseries – Torchwood: Children of Earth demonstrated the potential for this sort of format, and I think that allowing them to tell a large-scale mystery would allow for the series to stretch the basic procedural crime structure to a place where it rarely goes. This cast seems like they’d be prepared for that, and if event programming is the way they want to go I’d love to see them tackle that structure. Yes, some part of me is selfish and wants a full weekly series, but with Moffat being quite so busy I think that something contained might be a better bet.
  • Never overestimate the importance of Sherlock Holmes being wrong: missing the Harry/Harriet mistake could have been a moment when the character’s arrogance became insufferable, but instead he was searching for the mistake, aware that his analysis is fallible.
  • If you’re anything like me, you were really distracted by how similar the score for Sherlock seems reminiscent of Hans Zimmer’s great, oscar-nominated work on the score to Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. According to composer David G. Arnold, most of the score was done for the original pilot in early 2009, so any similarities are either coincidence or the other way around (with Zimmer’s work becoming reductive). To be honest, it doesn’t matter – the music is great in both, so who’s complaining?
  • For more about the series, including some interesting fan discussions, check out Sherlocking, a fan site run by some friends of mine.
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26 Comments

Filed under Sherlock

26 responses to “The Pleasure of the ‘Unnecessary’: BBC’s Sherlock

  1. Thomas

    It’s a bit of weird contradiction, this series. On the one hand, I’m enjoying it as a really fun, somewhat light-weight summer show that’s highly engaging in a clever-feeling way. It’s fun, but it’s smart-fun. But then there’s only three episodes of it so far, with at least another 12 to 18 months until another bunch of episodes, and that makes it feel, somewhat, like it should be more ‘special’ and ‘big’, if those words make sense in this context.

    It almost feels like a test-run, or Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat having some free time and getting these three episodes of Sherlock produced in Doctor Who-downtime. I don’t entirely know how to feel about the existence of this show, besides… really enjoying the first episode, I guess. And, yes, if it were possible to do while keeping up this level of quality, I’d totally watch a weekly version of this.

    (Btw: have you watched ‘Jekyll’, Moffat’s other take on classic literature set in modern times?)

  2. lisa

    PBS will be running the series in the US as part of Masterpiece Theatre (which is a co-producer, I think?) in October, according to the latest I’ve heard.

    As for the show: as a longtime fan of the books, the updating to modern day worked so much better for me than Guy Ritchie’s take on the contemporary did. Looking forward to the next two episodes, and totally pulling for a second series order for next year.

  3. Sonny

    Thomas, the 3 or 4 episodes format (actually they should have been 4 but the episode zero was never aired) is often used in Europe and, in particular, in England (think at a very good show, at least in the first seasons, like “Wire in the Blood”).

    In the end you’ll have 4 episodes of 90-100 minutes instead of 8-10 short episodes of 40-50 minutes. For us european the seriality (meaning having many episodes to watch) is not a big deal and don’t undervalue the fact that 4 real movies could be in the end better than 10 short episodes.

    Myles you always leave few or nothing to say. So maybe I can only add that the analogies with the novels are beautiful (for example also the original Watson was an Afghanistan veteran, only from a different war) and, except for a more arrogant and morbid Holmes (in the end, a high performance sociopath), the characters (for now) seem quite similar to their originals. Even the interactions still retain something of Conan Doyle’s novels.

    It’s a nice pilot but I’m waiting for the next episode to see if the good feeling is going to last or not.

    • Tausif Khan

      I felt that the novel was much richer and a lot less comic. I enjoyed the straight drama and darkness of the novel. I felt that this version mashed most of that to bring out another eccentric character. Given that this is a television program and not a movie I hope the establish more serialized elements as we move on and that character eccentricities were just the needs of the exposition in the introductory episode.

  4. Thomas

    Sonny: I’m aware of that, I’m a European myself. 😉 But still, there’s dozens of Sherlock stories to adapt, I thoroughly enjoyed this one, and I was just hoping we’d have more than just these three episodes. The fact that they’re 90 minutes helps, sure, but still: having to wait another 18 months for just a few more episodes is such a shame for something so, so fun.

  5. Amy S

    I’ve only read the one Conan Doyle, which was ‘A Study in Scarlet’, which it seems this was loosely based around, so I’m guessing I picked up a little more 🙂 The bit with ‘Rache’ and ‘Rachel’ was definitely from it, and I’m pretty sure there was a dying cabbie antagonist too, though a little more complex and personal. Also, I think it did actually mean revenge in the novel! There’s probably more that I’ve forgotten for not reading the story closely enough. Obviously, they wanted it to tie in with a whole series rather than it being stand-alone, like A Study in Scarlet, but there were nice parallels.

    The character interactions and the portrayal of Sherlock does tie in well with what I read, though. 🙂

  6. Sonny

    Yes, Amy, “Rache” in the novel is revenge and the story is in fact very similar to the original (cab driver, pills etc.). The small variations are, by the way, very funny (for example, when Holmes says with spite “it’s Rachel and not Revenge” you suspect he is wrong but then the story is slightly different from the original…) and these variations give the feeling that Holmes is still Holmes but not exactly the same.

    Sorry Thomas, I didn’t recognize the accent. 😉 Well, yea, you are right, waiting always sucks when you are waiting for a good show. I guess is part of the game.

  7. Jonathan Chaffer

    A couple nits:

    You’ve got Doctor Who on the brain in paragraph 8, and say “the Doctor” where you mean “Sherlock.” Threw me for a bit!

    Also, several times you refer to this episode as the pilot for the series. It’s not in this case; there was a pilot produced, but when the series was picked up they decided to shift the tone substantially and wrote A Study in Pink as a replacement. The pilot remains unaired.

    Great review! Looking forward to watching the remaining episodes and reading your reactions.

    • Doctor typo is indefensible (thanks!), but I feel comfortable calling this a pilot – while you are right that an original pilot was scrapped, and thus this was not a pilot in the sense of having been made to sell the show to the network, this still serves the other functions of a pilot in terms of introducing the characters and the world to the audience. This doesn’t make it a traditional pilot, but I do still feel comfortable using the word to explain its function.

    • pickwick

      Random info – the original pilot was the same story, just in an hour. And the BBC liked it so much they said “er, can we have 90 min eps?” so they re-shot it all slightly rewritten.

  8. Lorna

    I’m thrilled that you’re also watching this, Myles. I have been looking forward to Sherlock since I heard it was happening over a year ago.

    I loved the Guy Ritchie film which was a refreshing yet faithful version of Holmes and Watson – but this was even better.

    Cumberbatch is absolutely wonderful. Especially, as you said, he managed to be arrogant and yet still very likeable. And even on a third viewing (yes, I enjoyed it that much) I’m blown away by his performance in the final scene with the Cabbie. The muscle in his face twitching when the Cabbie said Moriarty was even better than him. Outstanding.

    If I had to find a flaw in would be the character Sally Donovan. That actress seemed to think she was in something else. Was anyone else just annoyed by her?

    • Lorna

      Sorry not ‘the final scene with the Cabbie’ – the climatic scene.

    • Annie

      You weren’t the only one! That woman really got on my nerves. I’m not totally sure if it was the actor or just the character written to be so… her.

      • I liked Sally Donovan’s initial appearance in the episode (some nice tension there), but it was quite obvious that her final “Sherlock is so dangerous!” lines (or, perhaps, her performance of them) seemed awfully out-of-character based on the notes we’ve gotten so far from her.

        Someone had to deliver those lines, I suppose, and I guess she was the only character that was able to do so.

  9. trippdup

    My biggest beef with the pilot is when Holmes is monologuing about the nature of the killer. “Who hunts in a crowd of people, goes everywhere unnoticed, etc.” My mind instantly went to “cabbie,” which was fine, because I thought that’s where Sherlock’s mind was also. Then they went to where they knew the killer would be, saw a suspicious taxi, chased it down, and completely ignored the driver in favor of the passenger. Turns out Sherlock hadn’t figured it out at all, and the earlier lines were just the writers tipping their hand.

  10. Sefa

    Comparing the Sherlock series to House is kind of moot, isn’t it, considering House was inspired by Sir Doyle’s stuff anyway? Cubmerbatch does absolutely nail the part, too, and the comparisons between him in this and Matt Smith as the Doctor are interesting as Cumberbatch says he was offered the role and turned it down. (I’ve been a bit of a fan of his for a little while now, and not just because his name is frigging amazing.) And don’t forget to mention “Psyche,” a show that predates “The Mentalist” and has a similar premise!

    Really great, interesting analysis as always. Like someone above said, highly recommend Moffat’s “Jekyll” as well as his “Coupling” series.

    • Thomas

      Actually, the Cumberbatch-turning-Doctor-role-down-thing was slightly overblown: he heard that they were looking for people to audition for the Doctor-role, but wasn’t really interested in the part so didn’t audition. He was never actually asked by anyone to be the Doctor directly. British tabloids just preferred to say he turned it down to make a bigger fuss out of it. 😉

  11. Thank you for your review, Myles! I was wondering if you’d be reviewing this.

    As a longtime Sherlock Holmes fan, I would say that the series from what I’ve seen so far distinguishes itself considerably from, say, House primarily on the basis of the source material, its clever visuals and its brilliant adaptation by Moffat and Gatiss. They’ve managed to be faithful to the key elements of Conan Doyle’s vision while making necessary 21st-century changes; you’re worrying, I sense, that such a good show will be passed over by the American public as just another detective drama, but a show like House or Life doesn’t have a beloved-for-centuries series of stories behind it.

    I can see your argument that the show isn’t particularly ‘necessary’; however, when one considers that Moffat has shown previous interest in readapting classic British works for the 21st century with “Jekyll”, Mark Gatiss enjoys writing historical or historically-based television (Doctor Who S1’s “The Unquiet Dead” and S2’s “The Idiot’s Lantern”) and the idea for the series has been floating around since the ’90s I would put forward that the show was going to happen eventually, and if not now, when?

    It’s refreshing to have a Sherlock in contemporary times, and a Watson that isn’t just spouting exposition.

    • Tausif Khan

      Most television critics ignore most of the Masterpiece programming in America. I think Moffat was the draw for this series.

      House is based on the story of Sherlock Holmes. Even the names are similar (Home=House).

  12. I loved the Sherlock pilot. It fully deserves it’s own 15 minutes of fame separate the the Guy Richie movie. The show is BBC through and through and it deserved it’s place at price time because there is nothing quite like it out there at the moment. Although there are plenty of detective shows floating around the main 5 terrestrial channels, I believe Sherlock has the ability to appeal to wider audiences that other detectives shows fail to do.
    I’ve not yet watched the second episode but I’m looking forward to it. 🙂

  13. Pingback: Sherlocking « nonchalant-

  14. Tausif Khan

    Bryan Singer wrote House to be Sherlock Holmes as if he were a doctor. This was such the case that when Hugh Laurie took on the role he thought that the series would be told from Wilson’s perspective.

    Visually we are told we will abandon focus on logic and reason when Holmes shuts the door on policeman explaining that rache is german for revenge.Visual it is to show this is an updated version with a different version. One that focuses on character rather than the development of logic. In the original story Study in Scarlet rache is actually the clue and sets the pair off to the United States dealing with Mormons. I did not like that they abandoned this clue because that would have given me a hint as to how this series will be serialized.

    Instead we are to see, or rather hear, of Holmes’ brilliance. I was very, very annoyed by the words on the screen spelling everything out for us. Part of the magic of Holmes for me is to see if I can keep up with Holmes and notice what he notices as he notices it. This for me would have set up his brilliance more than Watson constantly saying that Holmes is brilliant. Watson does this in the books as well. I felt that it was unnecessary since we were watching Holmes ourselves and could have our own sense of reason but be awed when Holmes is able to pull many threads together to find the creative solution to the mystery before us.

    Ritchie’s Holmes was plan and simple an action hero.

    Moffat’s Holmes I think is more Batman than any other character. We are warned that one day Holmes will be who commits murder. He is in it for the thrill of the chase and wants to solve crimes regardless of how detrimental it is too him. He wants order and to expose truth. This is very similar to the character of Batman. In Dark Knight we see Bruce Wayne trying out all his CSI gear (being one of the nicknames that Batman has) as the great detective. People fear that Batman will go completely to the dark side and start killing people. Bruce Wayne has an original psychological wound and takes in a person with a similar wounded personality Dick Grayson. Watson has a psychosomatic limp. In The Dark Knight Batman ends up playing different iteration of the prisoner’s dilemma (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner%27s_dilemma). The logic of the prisoner’s dilemma is similar to the game that Sherlock Holmes plays with Viscini…er, I mean the cabbie. The last shot of the episode with coats billowing matches the end of the 90s Batman movies and makes clear that they are a dynamic duo tracking criminals through the dead of night.

    • Tausif Khan

      *Visually it is to show this is an updated version with a different vision.

      **Ritchie’s Holmes was plain and simple an action hero.

      ***We are warned that one day Holmes will be the one who commits the murder.

  15. Tausif Khan

    Myles I highly recommend that you invest in reading Doyle’s Holmes novels.

    It is possible for Moffat to do a mini-series. Doyle wrote a few novels:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bibliography_of_Arthur_Conan_Doyle

    * A Study in Scarlet (1887)
    * The Sign of Four (1890)
    * The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1892)
    * The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894)
    * The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
    * The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1905)
    * The Valley of Fear (1915)
    * His Last Bow (1917)
    * The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)

    and a lot of Holmes short stories which could serve as the more stand-alone episodes.

    It is highly satisfying reading and a chance to test one’s intellect.

  16. Pingback: Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “A Study in Pink” (Sherlock) | Cultural Learnings

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