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.
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).
- 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.