Sherlock, series 1 (2010)

Like most people, I’m annoyed by Hollywood’s current tendency to remake, reboot or sequelise pretty much every major property they can find, as opposed to developing new ideas. But I’m not ideologically against this process, because occasionally it produces something worthwhile. In 2007, the BBC broadcast the six-episode miniseries Jekyll, a reimagining of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novella. Set in (then) contemporary England, it is a bit uneven and sometimes a little too campy and has a few rather bonkers plot twists towards the end, but overall it’s very watchable. Last year, Jekyll‘s writer Steven Moffat (who is also currently showrunner for Doctor Who) and the BBC reunited for another transposition of Victorian literature to the 21st century: Sherlock.

I quite like the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law, but I recognise it for what it is: mindless entertainment owing more to modern superhero flicks than to old-fashioned murder mysteries. So I’m glad to report that this television version blows the movie out of the water. Not literally, thankfully; unlike the film, there aren’t many explosions to be found.

The series’ first episode spends less than 15 minutes on introducing Holmes, Watson, Holmes to Watson, and the two to the case at hand, sticking fairly close to how Doyle originally did it. The cores of their characters and their circumstances in life have not been changed: John Watson is an army doctor recently returned from a war in Afghanistan(!), and Sherlock Holmes is a brilliant but abrasive loner who needs someone to share an expensive flat with. Detective Inspector Lestrade also features occasionally, and unlike his usual depictions, he’s fairly useful for and respectful to Holmes (if not exactly competent).
Their skill sets have been upgraded, naturally: The police have stopped actively contaminating crime scenes, Watson keeps a blog instead of case files, and Holmes can somehow hack into phone networks and doses up on nicotine patches instead of cocaine. His relationship with London police is somewhat testy, but he is nonetheless routinely invited to examine cases that stump the professionals.

That premise, of course, is ludicrous: A civilian with incredible deductive powers has the audacity – and the clout thanks to previous results – to offer his skills to the police and solve their cases for them, wanting and gaining as a reward merely the thrill of the hunt. No matter what Holmes may say: he is a law enforcement amateur, not in terms of skill, but certainly legally speaking. It didn’t bother me when this happened in the 100-year-old stories, probably due to the presumed lack of professionalism in the police force of the time. I have to confess that this sort of setup does irk me a bit in the 21st-century-set Sherlock; it just doesn’t seem particularly plausible.
Now, I enjoy similar American shows like Castle without such reservations, but Richard Castle represents only a quarter of the investigative team for each case, whereas Holmes and Watson routinely leave the police by the wayside and solve the crime almost by themselves[1]. I get that this is the way it has to be; an authentic Sherlock Holmes story should be structured a certain way, just like there’s a number of necessary components to a Bond film. And in any case, it’s not a huge quibble, and I had mostly got used to it by the third episode. But this kind of thing is at odds with the realistic tone the series otherwise affects.
There are other things that remind me of modern American police procedurals: the series’ slick, but mostly[2] undistinctive look; the often unremarkable and repetitive background music; the banter between Holmes, Watson and the police; the strange fixation on murder to the exclusion of other crimes; the infusion of quite a bit of humour despite the gruesome subject matter; unnecessary action scenes (particularly involving Holmes only for some reason). Also the fact that especially the first two episodes’ plots aren’t too clever: most audience members (regardless of whether they’re familiar with the Doyle versions of the stories or not) should have no problem staying one step ahead of Sherlock and several steps ahead of Watson most of the time. And of course the “eccentric and off-putting genius assisted by down-to-earth sidekick” formula is practically a chliché by now, but Holmes and Watson are its progenitors, so I can hardly fault Sherlock for following the same pattern.

Overall, despite some misgivings, this contemporary reimagining is competently done, and the modern-day update is probably more successful than Jekyll‘s was. The plotlines could use some tightening up, and while I don’t want Holmes to pull the solutions for the crimes completely out of thin air, it wouldn’t hurt to have the criminal machinations a little less transparent in future episodes. I would also like to see some wholly original stories without any basis in a previous Doyle adventure. Episode 3 is a good start on both counts.

I deduce that there are spoilers below.

“A Study In Pink”

Sherlock‘s first of three 90-minute episodes[3] is appropriately titled. The very first Holmes adventure penned by Arthur Conan Doyle was “A Study in Scarlet”, and many plot elements return in the television adaptation. Apart from the introduction of the main characters as mentioned above, the murderer’s occupation is the same, as is the method of killing people, and there are a handful of other minor callbacks.
The plot in short: London is plagued by a rash of deaths: several otherwise seemingly unconnected people commit suicide in the same fashion and within a few months of each other. Foul play is suspected by the police, and Holmes is called in to help, along with his newly minted flatmate Watson. As is his wont, Holmes ditches the police (and, later, even Watson) to pursue the killer on his own terms, and eventually succeeds.

The episode is a good introduction to the reimagined world of Holmes and Watson. The numerous references to the Doyle mythology will fly over many people’s heads, but are a welcome addition as far as I’m concerned. Even the oft-discussed homoerotic aspect of the protagonists’ friendship is played with.
The lack of clever construction I complained about above is already evident in this episode, however: I had read the original story many years ago, but didn’t really remember any details (until I looked them up doing research for this review). So I don’t think that gave me an unfair advantage over the characters. And yet I managed to figure several things out long before they were spelled out on screen. For instance, the way Holmes talks about the modus operandi of the killer, it’s obvious he must be a cab driver. And that idea is driven home several times without the characters realising it. But Holmes only deduces that fact a minute before he stands face-to-face with the killer. This is likely intentional: I would think that the audience likes being able to outguess Sherlock Holmes. I wouldn’t want completely impenetrable mysteries either. But there should be some middle ground between those positions, where the plotting is more sophisticated and subtle. I did like, for example, the Mycroft/Moriarty deception. From the way he was acting, I thought he was Moriarty for sure. That twist/surprise is something Moffat pulled of well.

I’m not sure how I feel about some of the added intricacies to the personalities of the main characters: Holmes as a sociopath more interested in the game of cat and mouse than he is in bringing murderers to justice (and saying as much out loud); Watson as a former soldier who possibly has PTSD, who’s definitely been desensitised to violence, and who craves the thrill of danger. Those are certainly valid interpretations and expansions of the characters, but the writers need them to actually go somewhere, and subsequent episodes only partly do. It does add a certain symmetry to their partnership, though: they are both damaged people.
On a related note: I find Watson’s killing of the cab driver to be morally questionable. He isn’t armed at that point (and isn’t even pointing his toy gun at Holmes), so any danger he poses to Sherlock is psychological. Not to mention the bullet could have missed its target; from Watson’s perspective, Holmes stands in front of the murderer. And once it’s over, Watson laughs it up as if nothing had happened; Holmes astutely remarks on this, but Watson shrugs it off. This is an incident that ought to be addressed in the future.

“The Blind Banker”

An old acquaintance of Holmes’ works at a bank which has been broken into. Nothing was stolen, but a painting was seemingly vandalised. Holmes is hired to find the security breach, but soon finds a dead body, which eventually puts him into conflict with a Chinese crime syndicate.

The verdict: a decent 90 minutes of entertainment, but this is in many ways the most conventional of the three episodes, and the one most closely resembling American network procedurals. Since the story isn’t particularly closely based on a previous adventure, I would have preferred the premise to stick with “security breach in a bank”, as opposed to upping the stakes a thousandfold, with several murders and the Chinese mafia. Holmes should solve puzzling crimes, yes, but homicide isn’t exactly the only possible crime. Many of the original Doyle adventures make do without corpses, and the Sherlock team ought to consider doing some of those as well. If I want “all murder, all the time”, I can switch on the telly and find what I’m looking for without much trouble.
Especially since the police is completely useless here. It’s addressed in the episode as the Inspector being incompetent, but he’s not merely incompetent, he completely ignores the crapload of evidence Holmes hands him on a platter. If the episode had been about Sherlock investigating a private matter, there would have been no need for cramming the police into the plot.

There are also several instances of Mood Whiplash in this episode, and not the good kind. I have nothing against humour in a crime mystery, but it has to be handled well, and it isn’t here. For instance, in the span of 15 minutes:

  • Sherlock comically disregards Watson’s efforts to help him;
  • Sherlock gets ambushed and almost choked to death;
  • Watson not realising why Holmes’ voice sounds sore is played for laughs;
  • tense music plays while a young Chinese woman in danger is working in the dark;
  • Holmes approaches her in silence for no reason and startles her in a comic moment;
  • the girl tells her sad life story;
  • Holmes runs after an assassin and makes a jokey comment;
  • the Chinese girl is killed.

Finally, this is not a good episode for Watson. The Sherlock team can’t seem to decide who they want him to be: the capable action sidekick, like in Guy Ritchie’s film, or the bumbling fool of many 20th century adaptations. In that spectrum, Doyle’s original version is close to the left edge, and Moffat’s veers wildly around in the middle. Watson has one competent moment in the episode (when he photographs a graffito shortly before it’s taken down) and one accidentally competent one (when he diverts the giant crossbow’s aim), but otherwise, he’s mostly comic relief: asking daft questions, getting framed for a misdemeanour he didn’t commit, sleeping on the job, being belittled by Holmes. And he’s indirectly responsible for the death of the Chinese woman from above because he leaves her side for no reason to look for Holmes (and doesn’t even find him).

“The Great Game”

This episode, written by Mark Gatiss, who co-produces and who also plays Mycroft Holmes in the show, is the reason I couldn’t say earlier that this series has no explosions at all. It starts with one (within the first seven minutes, at any rate). The target, indirectly, is Sherlock Holmes himself: a coded message addressed to him is found in the wreckage. Over the course of the episode, the bomber kidnaps innocent people one by one and threatens to kill them unless Holmes can solve a few puzzles.

It’s really quite weird to watch all three episodes within the span of a couple of days. It’s like “The Blind Banker” is from a different series entirely, or maybe an early draft. Many elements introduced in the first episode, and missing in the second, are back here: the uneasy yet still vaguely equal partnership of Holmes and Watson; a reasonably competent Watson; his blog; Lestrade; unempathetic and callous Holmes; nicotine patches; Mycroft; science. It’s perfectly possible to show Holmes as the intellectual superior to most that surround him without making the others (most notably Watson) out to be morons, and Moffat/Gatiss prove here that episode 2 was an outlier in this regard. And the idea from “A Study in Pink” that a shadowy “admirer” of Holmes throws challenges in his direction to test his mettle[4] is the structural backbone of “The Great Game”.
Also, one of the things I disliked about the second episode but which were already present in the first is rectified here: this time, Holmes really does need to rely on his wits alone. There is exactly one proper action sequence[5], and it doesn’t go well for Holmes and Watson. I watch Sherlock for his brains, not his muscles, so that was very welcome.

The episode uses its 90 minute timespan well, certainly better than the second one (which was really a 60 minute episode stretched out as languidly as possible). In essence, there isn’t just one case, there are half a dozen, but they’re all connected via Moriarty. And while there are a lot of allusions to Doyle stories, the episode isn’t wholly based on one in particular. It’s not a brilliant script, but I can’t say I have any substantial objections to the plot this time around; it kept not just Holmes guessing, but me as well, a first for the series. I expected the story to be a bit more intense based on a vague “Holmes against the clock” synopsis I’d read beforehand, but I’m fine with how it turned out. There is a lot of tension and grisliness, but it’s tempered by a – this time – appropriate placing of humour into the narrative. It doesn’t just consist of slapstick or Watson being stupid; it has an edge to it, appears organic to the characters and furthers the plot and/or characterisation (e.g. Watson’s reaction of the head in the fridge leading to a “domestic squabble”, Holmes’ analysis of the allegedly gay boyfriend, and the “bad samaritan” quip).

Speaking of characterisation, while Watson’s war-time issues again fall by the wayside, at least Holmes’ problems get some much-needed attention. His coldness comes into play again, giving the audience an exasperated outburst by Watson and and an intriguing reaction by Moriarty, who practically teases Holmes for a weakness he pretends he doesn’t possess. And just like he was very tempted to take that poison pill to test his theory in episode 1, here he is very reluctant to shoot Moriarty — not because he is worried about his own life (or even Watson’s, though that is debatable), but because that would be depriving him of the pleasures of the game. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is not a hero quite yet, and he keeps the audience on our toes. It’s a fascinating performance.
On that note, the show could have easily ended with this episode. It doesn’t – it was renewed for a second series a long time ago -, but it could have. The final cliffhanger would have been a fitting ending, just as ambiguous as the character of Sherlock Holmes[6].

There’s not much else to say. “The Great Game” is the best episode of a not perfect but always entertaing television series. I look forward to watching the next three adventures.

Notes

^[1]= There is token opposition to this in every episode, but it never amounts to much.
^[2]= The on-air text messages are a nice touch, though.
^[3]= There is an hourlong pilot on the DVD, but it was never aired and is reportedly quite different from the finished series. I don’t plan to watch it anytime soon; I like the series the way it is, and watching the pilot after the final version but before the second series is liable to confuse me.
^[4]= Moriarty appears at the very end of “The Blind Banker”, of course, but not in that capacity.
^[5]= And frankly, even the one was unnecessary and I could have done without it. Plus, it was rather strangely and disorientingly edited together. And speaking of minor annoyances, the magic CSI pollen database Holmes uses in one scene doesn’t really fit the more or less realistic vibe of the show. American procedurals are rightly criticised for depending on such crutches; Sherlock really shouldn’t copy them.
^[6]= A nice bit of trivia for whoever managed to read this far: Jekyll has a cliffhanger as well, and that one was never resolved. It was also a good ending for that show. And the the third episode of series 2 is called “The Reichenbach Fall”…

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