Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes first appeared in print in 1887, and entered the public domain some time in the 20th century.  Long before he did so, however, he entered the public consciousness.  There are many more people who know who Holmes is, and can identify his defining qualities and tropes--his keen intelligence, his ability to deduce the most intimate details about a person from a brief observation of their appearance and behavior, his friendship with Doctor Watson--than have ever read a single one of Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories or novels, or even seen them adapted.  One of the most interesting recent indications of the depth to which Holmes has permeated Western culture is the fact that Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock, which concluded its three-episode 'season' this week, doesn't simply borrow Holmesian tropes from Conan Doyle's originals, but from intervening adaptations.  The jangling score seems to have been lifted from Guy Ritchie's 2009 film.  Holmes's reconfiguration as a sociopath with substance abuse problems, who pursues cases solely for the joy of stimulating his intellect and without a thought for the lives that are often at stake, is ground that has been well trodden by House.  And though Moffat, at least, writes Holmes in a manner so similar to his take on the Doctor that there were moments in his episode, "A Study in Pink," that I could have sworn the character was being played by Matt Smith instead of Dominic Cumberbatch, Cumberbatch himself sometimes seems to be channeling Jeremy Brett, particularly in the way he uses his voice.

Of course, with the possible exception of the music, it is probably premature to identify any influence on the show's tone or direction, because at present there isn't really a show.  The season, comprising three 90 minute stories, is probably best thought of as a proof of concept for the idea of Holmes transposed to the 21st century.  Or rather, as an attempt at such a proof that isn't entirely persuasive, but rather demonstrates that the though the idea has potential, its pitfalls are numerous and not easily avoided.  Of the three episodes, "A Study in Pink" is superb, a witty, effortlessly involving story with an irresistible hook--how can a killer force his victims to commit suicide--that also doubles as compelling introduction to the reinvented Holmes and Watson, and to the beginning of their partnership.  Steve Thompson's followup, however, "The Blind Banker," is terrible, and Mark Gatiss's "The Great Game" is good, but achieves that goodness only by stuffing its running time to the brim with puzzles, close shaves, explosions and near-explosions, and the introduction of a new Moriarty who doesn't quite light up the screen as the new Holmes and Watson do.  It achieves through brute force what "A Study in Pink" managed with a much lighter, more elegant approach. 

More importantly, the three stories don't create a sense of belonging to a single series.  They vary in tone and in their treatment of their characters.  Holmes is a Doctor-ish blur of super-excited intelligence in "A Study in Pink," but more subdued in the other two.  Watson is stiff but stalwart in "Study," a bumbling pushover in "Banker," and an audience surrogate, whose normalcy sheds a light on Holmes's cold detachment, in "Game."  The two meet for the first time in "Study" and spend the episode forming a tentative bond, but the two following episodes take their partnership for granted rather than building it up.  "Study" introduces Holmes's drug addiction and strongly hints that his personal growth will be the series's overarching theme, but this is abandoned in "Banker" and "Game."  There is, in short, no sense that a single vision is driving this reinvention of the character.  The three stories feel disconnected from one another, as though Thompson and Gatiss were writing fanfic in Moffat's world, and failing to get the feel of it quite right.  (Of course, given how brief the season has been, it might be equally possible to say that Thompson or Gatiss have the true measure of the show and that Moffat is the fanfic writer, but as I like his story best, I'm inclined to think that it's his vision that should prevail.)

The problem, I think, is the running time.  90 minutes is an unforgiving timeslot for a writer who can't plot or keep their plot moving--which is, quite frankly, most television writers.  Moffat manages the task with ease and Gatiss barrels through it, while Thompson produces a stultifying hour and a half.  But because each of them is aware of how easily a less than engaging mystery might lose the audience, they put most of their eggs in the plot basket--the longer running time demands it.  So that the variations in the way Holmes and Watson are presented in the three episodes are compounded by the latter two's willingness to put the two characters, and the relationship between them, on the back-burner in favor of moving the plot along.  A one-hour episode, meanwhile, can afford to be a little slack on the story front, and to develop its characters instead.  Another way of putting it, of course, is that Sherlock is keeping faith with Conan Doyle himself, who famously did little to develop either Holmes, Watson, or their friendship.  Like Moffat and Gatiss's versions, they have a brief introduction, agree to live together, and set off on their adventures.  From that moment onwards, the status quo--Holmes's feats of deduction, his uncontainable personality, and Watson's total devotion to him--is established and only rarely deviated from.  I liked the idea of a more traditional type of television series centered on Holmes, which Moffat's episode seemed to promise, and my mixed feelings about Sherlock are mainly rooted in the fact that it doesn't seem interested in becoming that series.  But there is also the simple fact that the status quo established by Moffat and Gatiss isn't as compelling or as well-crafted as Conan Doyle's.  None of the three writers can consistently deliver Holmes-ian deduction, and their take on Holmes itself is not only, as Dan Hartland (who has written more effusive praise about all three episodes) says, a less rounded character than Conan Doyle's Holmes, who was principled and compassionate on top of being brilliant and cold (to which I would add that it also smacks disappointingly of the all-too typical tendency to vilify intellect and those who possess it), but also a lesser version of a character that's been done definitively.  House is by no means great television, but it has surely plumbed the depths of what it means to always be the smartest guy in the room, to always know that people are lying and keeping secrets, and to more easily find pleasure in intellectual pursuits than in the company of others.  It's pretty clear that neither Sherlock nor Cumberbatch--who may have a performance of Hugh Laurie's caliber in him but is not being given the chance to demonstrate this--are interested in delving that deep, so I'm not sure what the point of this watered down version of the character arc is.

All of this is not to say that there aren't things I like about Sherlock.  I think Martin Freeman's Watson is very good; I think the combination of humor and horror is very effective; I really like the way the writers use on-screen titles (will it ever make sense to show the screen of a cell phone again?).  But again, these are all things that worked very well in "A Study in Pink" and were either abandoned or handled less effectively in the following episodes.  The one thing that Sherlock does well and consistently is its recreation of Victorian London in the 21st century, which is nothing short of masterful.  The music plays a part in this, of course, and so do directors Paul McGuinan and Euros Lyn, who ensure that interiors are always close and overstuffed and exteriors always dark and foggy (I suspect that we will never see an episode of Sherlock set in summer or spring), and who carefully point their cameras away from billboards, neon lights, logos and trademarks, showing only the bricks and cobblestones that are still there underneath it all.  But it's the writing that truly transposes Victorian Holmes onto the 21st century, so perfectly that you'd swear the character had been written for our era.  It's darkly funny that Watson can just as easily have sustained a war injury in Afghanistan in 2010 as in 1887.  Blogs and text messages map perfectly onto popular magazines and telegrams, and anonymous commenting is as good a way to keep in touch with a mysterious contact as cryptic messages in the personals page.  Cabs are, of course, as necessary a means of transportation in today's London as they were 123 years ago.  The writers' eagerness to play around with Conan Doyle's original material contributes to the series's sense of Holmes-ishness, whether it's Moffat's clever inversion of the dying message in "A Study in Scarlet," or Gatiss's more straightforward incorporation of "The Bruce Partington Plans" as a sub-plot of "The Great Game."  In a way, Sherlock is as much, if not more, a work of steampunk as Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes--it overlays a Victorian sensibility over modern technology, and creates an unreal world that is all its own.  If I'm enchanted with the series despite its many flaws, it is mainly because of the overpowering sense of that world that it creates, which often overwhelms those flaws.

There is, of course, a dark underside to Sherlock's fascination with Victoriana, and it is very much on display in "The Blind Banker," which on top of being a slack, overwrought mystery is suffused with so many Asian stereotypes straight out of a pulp novel (or out of Conan Doyle's more objectionable Holmes stories) that it has to be seen to be believed: sinister Chinese triads masquerading as circus performers, chasing down a vulnerable and doomed young woman just trying to escape her past, and torturing our heroes with deadly chinoiserie (as if this were not enough, the episode kicks off with a non-sequitor of a scene in which Holmes is attacked by a robed swordsman straight out of a 19th century penny dreadful).  It's tempting to read the episode as a ham-fisted attempt to comment on Victorian Orientalism that ends up participating in it instead, but Sherlock has been so very bad with other issues of representation that one can't help but assume that the fault is in the intent rather than the execution.  SelenaK has a nice summary of "The Great Game"'s rather troubling treatment of homosexuality, and then there are the women: Mrs. Hudson, whose job is to be unquestioningly accommodating and, on occasion, to provide comic relief through cheerful dimness; Sally Donovan, a bitter shrew who earns the audience's ire for being mean to Holmes and has yet to demonstrate a shred of competence in her job as a police detective; Molly the pathologist, a pathetic doormat who makes obvious, doomed passes at Holmes, and whom he casually humiliates on a regular basis; and Sarah, Watson's love interest who clearly has no existence beyond that role, because her response to a first date that ends with her being kidnapped, tied up, and nearly killed is to agree to a second one.  Just about the only positive thing that can be said about Sherlock's depiction of women is that it doesn't happen very often, unless they are the victims of a crime.

I've written a lot here about the things that frustrate or anger me about Sherlock, so it may sound strange if I say that I actually like the show a lot and look forward to the next batch of episodes.  The thing is, the problems with the show are the things about it that stick out--the inconsistency between chapters, the laziness of borrowing Holmes's characterization from another television series, the often shoddy plotting, the ghastly writing for women--whereas what works, what I found enjoyable and even lovable, is more in the realm of ambiance--the worldbuilding I've already written about, but also the chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch, and more than either of these the sense that this really is Holmes, not quite Conan Doyle's Holmes but Holmes nonetheless, brought to the 21st century.  That's certainly enough to bring me back, even though I suspect that the series will never deliver the character development that "A Study in Pink" seemed to promise, and that its female characters will never improve.  What I'd like, however, if the Sherlock that I wanted can never be, is a little more care in the construction of the episodic, Conan Doyle-esque Sherlock that Moffat and Gatiss seem interested in.  Let's have a lot more "Study in Pink"s, and a lot fewer "Blind Banker"s.

8 comments:

Elissa said...

Damn girl, those are some long-ass paras.

Fred said...

Some very interesting thoughts. I can't say you're wrong about the show's faults, though I liked the on-screen text considerably less in "Study" (and was largely glad to see the device go), and liked Andrew Scott's take on Moriarity much more than you seem to have. (Though it does run the risk of bleeding into insulting gay stereotype rather than just unhinged violent-prone camp.)

I also quite liked Gatiss acting work, particularly in "Study." His initial appearance nicely uses our knowledge of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes against us.

I definitely agree that "Banker" is easily the weakest of the three episodes, and that the 90-minute format may be seriously hurting the show. That said, I also agree that there's a lot to keep me interested and quite eager for future episodes.

Anonymous said...

I like the 90 minute format, it feels more like a movie rather than a "drama" TV show. I also liked the text messaging aspect though perhaps not used quite so often. I have to disagree with the Blind Banker as I enjoyed the plot for the most part-learning a bit about Sherlock in Uni-and the Asian plot was no worse than the Arab terrorist plot used for upteem episodes of "24". As for the opening scenes of Episode 2 & 3, I think the writers were just parodying the adventures that Watson mentioned but never wrote up, ie The Giant Rat of Sumatra. Just a bit of silliness.

Far from vilifying intellect, I think Sherlock is written much like Doyle intended. In the stories, to break into a house, Sherlock disguises himself as a plumber and engages himself to a maid in the house. When Watson objects, Holmes dismisses him by telling of another suitor in the wings. Holmes was moved by the death of the old woman and the child hostage by the look on his face, but as he said, will emotion help those people? I forgot where I read that Sherlock could have easily become a thief but Watson kept him honest. As the the homosexuality in TGG, it was this "what gays look like" that screwed up Sherlock in the end.

I agree with your other points and Moffat's female characters are never really complex-Amy Pond, for example, but the the canonical references, it's cheeky manner and the strength of it's cast(including RG) makes me love it almost as much as Brett version. Regarding character development, comparing a multi year show like House to Sherlock's 3 episodes are a bit misleading, as House is a very different show in tone and feel. Give it another season at least.

Bottom line-I like the show because it's like Indiana Jones-stylish, pulpy fun in the spirit of the stories. I doubt it will win any BAFTAs but as Sunday night television goes, it's a rare find to see anything that made for pure enjoyment and I'd rather have had the Cumberbatch version of Sherlock in the recent movie than RDJ.

Just another POV.

Matt Denault said...

Issues of representation aside, which the whole series was fairly dreadful on (of course the killer was Raul the houseboy...), I liked the third episode the most, although I wouldn't call any of the episodes "superb." Despite the sense that it was a series of mini-episodes, perhaps a whole season, crammed into a single finale, what the third episode does well is a) present this Holmes as, quite knowingly, a high-functioning sociopath--like a steampunk Dexter--while simultaneously b) hinting towards the Watchmen-like sense that Holmes has created Moriarty, that the two occupy the different sides they do mainly because Holmes came first. The third episode, as a mystery, makes good use of the common mystery delight of showing us something important early on--Moriarty, in this case--making us forget it, and then having it come back and make sense at the end. But what this also did was force us to see the similarity between Moriarty's ability to fool Molly the pathologist and Holmes's own ability to slip on a mask of normality and fool the wife of the man who had rented the car and then disappeared--it is, for series TV, a nice bit of subtlety. Indeed my main disappointment with the episode was the hinting that deep down this Holmes really does have a heart...it felt too much like pandering to the audience to humanize Holmes that way. I would have enjoyed seeing a series exploring the intersection of morality and play between two supremely smart individuals who regard those around them as gamepieces, who literalize and make serious--and a bit creepy--the sense of crime-solving-as-a-game that often seems inherent in that genre.

I liked the first episode well enough, too, but it was a bit weak for me in two areas. First, the middle stretch, between Holmes not realizing that the cab driver would be a more likely suspect than the passenger and then nobody grasping the import of the uncalled-for cab showing up at the apartment, put the audience in the position of feeling smarter than Holmes--which isn't a good feeling to ever have in this series. Second, I found the actual reveal of how the killer convinced his victims to "commit suicide" to be a let-down after the build-up it had received.

It's worth mentioning that, at least to me as an outsider, another key star of the series was London itself--its ability to enclose such a mix of old and new, to look and feel like steampunk just by being itself.

telepresence said...

Agreed with Denault. The answer to "How does he convince people to commit suicide" was quite a letdown.

I also just don't think Sherlock Holmes works any more. Sociopathic or autism spectrum geniuses to solves crimes in a quirky manner are a dime a dozen nowadays.

And in a world with modern forensics and computer networks and cameras everywhere and whatnot, I find Holmes' ability to run circles around the police not very convincing (it reminds me to some degree of Numb3ers, a show which mightily tried to convince us the FBI had never heard of game theory or statistical analysis).

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Fred:

The gay stereotype issue is a problem with Moriarty (as is the fact that the writers are so desperate for him to assure Holmes that he was just pretending to be gay), but for me the main issue is that he feels more like a gag than a character, and lacks the sense of menace that I think he needs to be a worthy adversary (and to be worth the trouble that the show and the characters take to catch up with him). That may change, of course.

Anon.:

the Asian plot was no worse than the Arab terrorist plot used for upteem episodes of "24"

Not a terribly high standard you're setting there.

Sherlock is written much like Doyle intended

Not at all. Even the incident you cite is an exception, which is why Watson is so scandalized by Holmes's behavior. In most of Conan Doyle's stories, Holmes is deeply concerned for his clients, and often outraged on their behalf.

Matt:

I think I like the version of "The Great Game" you describe here a great deal better than the one that made it on screen. I can see hints of all the themes you identify in the episode, but it is too overstuffed to seriously handle any of them. Later episodes might do so, of course, but given the disjointedness of the series thus far that seems a bit much to hope for.

I would have enjoyed seeing a series exploring the intersection of morality and play between two supremely smart individuals who regard those around them as gamepieces, who literalize and make serious--and a bit creepy--the sense of crime-solving-as-a-game that often seems inherent in that genre.

This is the reason, though, why I feel that Holmes-as-sociopath is redundant given the existence of House, which is very much a show about medicine - for which read medical investigation - as play. True, House doesn't have a Moriarty, but I don't think he's necessary to tackle the central question raised by both series - does it matter that House and Holmes don't care about the people they're trying to save?

Though I agree that "A Study in Pink" wobbles significantly towards its end - everyone, including Holmes's, inability to grasp that the killer was downstairs was extremely grating - I quite liked the solution to the mystery. It was simple and also stressed how intelligent, and how crazy, the killer was.

Telepresence:

I actually find the absence of forensics in Sherlock refreshing (which is funny given that Holmes was actually a forerunner of forensic detection in a lot of ways), and in some ways I suspect that it may be closer to how real detection works. We've gotten used to TV policemen whose crime labs work 24/7, are never backed up, and give instant results, but real forensics takes much longer. Holmes's advantage in this case is that he's fast - the police would have eventually figured out who the dead security guard in "The Great Game" was, but not in time to save Moriarty's victim.

Lucien said...

Steven Moffat's alleged misogyny has been commented on before, as you are probably aware: http://io9.com/5022250/why-steven-moffat-isnt-all-that

What particularly stood out for me was his comment about women being "needy". I'm not sure that someone should be pilloried for what sound like off-the-cuff remarks to a journalist several years ago. On the other hand, I remember watching JEKYLL, which I otherwise enjoyed, with a growing discomfort at its portrayal of women. At one point, a character - whose sole function seemed to be "lesbian who keeps announcing wryly that she is a lesbian" - says something about it being inhuman torture to keep three women locked in a room for hours without a magazine. Some people might find that a funny line, I suppose - I found it a bit odd, because it seemed to be something that nobody would say about themselves. Hey ho.

ibmiller said...

Having finally gotten a chance to see the three films, I have to say my evaluation is very similar to yours. with perhaps a bit less enjoyment of The Great Game. However, I feel there's too much Idiot Plot going around in general - Holmes failing to figure out the cabbie's guilt, the completely moronic behavior by everyone in Banker (sure, leave the death-marked girl alone in a dark room when the killer is running around) (not to mention the racism), and the utterly unsubtle Moriarty (and Holmes following Moriarty seemingly unquestioningly, a lazy television writer's trick for showing a supposedly "smart" villain, when it generally only degrades the intelligence of the hero).

Then there's the problem of Holmes self-labelling as a "high-functioning sociopath." Certainly a common view - supported at least twenty years ago in Michael Dibden's The Last Sherlock Holmes Story - but not, I think, supported by the original stories themselves. For me, the real reason Jeremy Brett's portrayal of Holmes works so well is that Brett was too compassionate to play Holmes as he thought he should be played - as the sociopathic, bored genius. Instead, what comes through is a genius, uncertain of how to deal with the twin burdens of an intellect so far beyond those around him and an intense emotional life (evidenced by his burning passion for justice, compassion for his clients, and dependence and tenderness with Watson).

I once likened Brett's Holmes to Laurie's House by saying that while we know House must be the hero because Laurie's such a nice actor, the character consistently fails to demonstrate the faintest shred of goodness, instead relying on intelligence to make up for the gratuitous sadism he oozes. Holmes as played by Brett is the reverse - we constantly expect the cruel, cold logician, but instead are consistently surprised by the humanity and kindness he shows.

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