Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Television Tuesday: Sherlock

I dislike plot points that invoke a disease as explanation for a lead character's personality quirks. I don't particularly like Temperance Brennan of BONES because I think she's a bit of an arrogant tool. Is she brilliant? Yes, unquestionably. But her assertion of rationality above all else is conveniently set aside when she's the one making leaps of judgment based on unqualified data, impressions, intuition, or gut instinct. Her inconsiderate and often outright offensive treatment of people is justified by her brilliance and success, and her rudeness and lack of social know how is generally excused (though never, to my knowledge, explicitly stated in the show itself) as due to her having a disorder along the lines of Aspergers syndrome.

I disagree. Now I know jack all about Aspergers syndrome beyond what TV tells me, and we all know how accurate that is, so please don't harangue me about how ignorant I am about the disease because I am well aware. Deconstructing the syndrome isn't my goal here. Commenting on its use as a character trait/excuse is.

I think Brennen's simply an arrogant if brilliant tool with no concern for the feelings or viewpoints of anyone else beyond herself (which are sacrosanct) and the people she values personally – and often, not even them – most especially evidence by the way she shifts her views of rationality based on what suits her best at the moment. This seems most evident to me when she insists on wielding a gun and going through a door side by side with her FBI "partner" Booth. A trained sniper and agent, Booth has the experience and training to go into potentially violent situations bearing arms. That Brennan vehemently and repeatedly insists she has every right to do the same without those years of training or specialty irks me sorely. I've stopped watching BONES because I can't tolerate the character any longer; not even the pleasure I have watching David Boreanaz succeed post-Angel is enough for me to further stomach more Brennan quirks. And with BIG BANG THEORY and COMMUNITY now in competing time slots with the show on Thursday nights, it's bye-bye-BONES.

As I watched A Study in Pink, the first episode of the BBC's brilliant new series SHERLOCK, early on I worried that this would be another quirky/annoying Aspergers-like sufferer exercising his brilliant mind coupled with an insulting and annoying personality in the pursuit of justice. I should have trusted the brilliant Stephen Moffat (co-creator of SHERLOCK and writer of A Study in Pink) more. Very early on in the episode, the exchange between Sherlock Holmes and the bitter pathologist with a grudge against him put my fears to rest.

"This from the psychopath," (or words to that effect) the pathologist sneers in response to one of Sherlock's startling observations.

"I'm not a psychopath," Sherlock retorts. "I'm a highly-functioning sociopath. Do your homework, [Smith]." This last bit of signature patronizing snark is laced with a keen self-awareness refreshing for its lack of glamor.

Color me hooked.

This Sherlock is completely aware of his own make up and how he behaves towards others. He just really doesn't care. His mind works on such an extraordinarily advance plane of being that mortals can but stop and stare. It's not Jeremy Brett's Sherlock, cocaine-fueled and full of bonhomie and haughty entitlement (my personal yardstick for all versions of the Great Detective having never seen Basil Rathborne's incarnation). Nor is he the rough, occasionally brutal, ripping rascal of Guy Ritchie's recent big screen adaptation of the same (more on that in a minute). 

Here, Sherlock is a young (though not YOUNG SHERLOCK HOLMES young), adept savant with the manic energy of a hopped-up teen. He's mad for texting and can hack a laptop password faster than you can spell you first pet's name. One of his particular talents is the ability to quite literally envision the mechanics of a case. He can picture the maze of London streets as though he'd laid the tar and cement himself. He's petulant too, a side effect of his youth, and huffs and puffs when things or people get in his way. Played engagingly by Benedict Cumberbatch , Sherlock is compelling, frustrating, rude, cocky, manipulative, and cheeky. 

He's also marvelously entertaining.

Updated to modern-day London, SHERLOCK is the brain child of Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat. I'm most familiar with Moffat's work. With COUPLING, JEKYELL, and most recently, DOCTOR WHO in his resume, Moffat's biggest appeal to my mind is the clever writing and plotting he brings to every script. His WHO credits for THE DOCTOR DANCES, THE GIRL IN THE FIREPLACE, and those freaky-assed weeping angels of BLINK feature amazing drama with dialogue that spits and spatters like Aaron Sorkin on his most crazed day (I recommend closed-captioning subtitles for both). And boy does he bring the funny. 

With SHERLOCK, Moffat and company inherit a built-in audience who do not easily warm to changes to the canon. Tying themselves (the correct, if potentially hobbling, move) to the vaunted source material, they are left a bit strangled at times. I was yelling "don't leave the girl alone you nitwits" at the screen during last Sunday's episode when they did just that. But with so much good stuff on the screen, I can easily swallow a plot hiccup here and there.

Adapting classic Holmes stories (A Study in Pink is the refashioning of A Study in Scarlet), Moffat and company are bringing Holmes into the 21st century without sacrificing an iota of what made him so compelling in past ones. Still, even a cutting-edge modernization requires a few ole standbys to resonate with any kind of authority. Enter John Watson.

As part of the modern-day setting, this John Watson has recently returned from the current war in Afghanistan, depressed, psychosomatically injured, and secretly craving the adventure he's left behind. He keeps a blog, instead of the more traditional journal, and immediately dives into the crazy that is Sherlock. As always, Watson is our every man, frustrated and annoyed by the self-centered Sherlock and yet dazzled by his brilliance – and the adrenaline rush offered by Sherlock's more dangerous cases. 

Recently christened with the mantle of bringing Tolkien's Bilbo Baggins to life in the big screen adaptation of THE HOBBIT, Martin Freeman's low-key, steel-enforced Watson is a little bit bumbling and a little bit shy but a whole lotta hero lurks beneath that affable skin, quickly apparent as he quietly and repeatedly saves the day. Watson is our lens into the world of Sherlock and he gives us a prime view of the madness of genius while serving as the rock solid foundation of old.

With so recent a hit as SHERLOCK HOLMES in the forefront of viewers' minds, comparison is inevitable. Besides the obvious differences of time and space changes, small changes distance SHERLOCK from Guy Ritchie's recent big screen adaptation of the same, most overtly by relying on "Sherlock" and "John" monikers instead of the more traditional "Holmes" and "Watson". Lestrade (ably portrayed by Rupert Graves, who seems to be everywhere these days (INSPECTOR LEWIS comes immediately to mind) but will always and forever be Freddy from A ROOM WITH A VIEW to me) is more mentor and friend to Sherlock than a Cockney out-of-his-depth detective. Likewise Sherlock's relationship to his older brother Mycroft is much less one of avowed hero worship as in Brett's version; here Mycroft is a powerful player in the political world who loves but is concerned for his wild, unpredictable, and potentially ruinous younger brother. Too, Moriarty lurks in the wings, waiting to be revealed, but his presence is quickly felt even in his absence and he will take center stage in this Sunday's final episode.

Altogether, SHERLOCK is a refreshing update to a will-never-get-tiresome story. To paraphrase Sherlock's own quip, the game is most assuredly on.

The third and final episode in its abbreviated first "season" airs Sunday night at 9pm EST on PBS' Masterpiece Mystery program (how fiendishly delightful is Alan Cumming as Masterpiece Mystery's front man? Delicious.) The first two episodes are airing intermittently on various PBS stations in the area, so fear not if you've missed one.

As always, I have received no promotional consideration or bribery for review this program; I'm simply driven by my own inability to resist well-crafted television and a quirky detective with an English accent.


  1. Excellent analysis.
    One teensy quibble: there is that one point where he scoffs about a woman being still bothered about the death of her child -- then he stops and looks at everyone's expression and realizes that he might possibly have said something "not good." Otherwise, no, he doesn't care what people think.

    I was surprised at how good Watson was; it's nice that he's not portrayed as a buffoon. And the actor who plays Sherlock really knows how to work a pair of cheekbones ;)

  2. Thanks Merry!
    I agree. Sherlock discerns from everyone else's shock that he misstepped, but doesn't really care himself. He kind of files it away for later. But those cheekbones really could cut glass.

    I like Martin Freeman a lot. His role in LOVE ACTUALLY could have been really skeevy (he played a man who works as a stand in for porn flicks) but instead was unbelievably sweet. I think he's going to be a fantastic Bilbo.

  3. My guess is that, given the current intellectual climate of the first world, we are all supposed to accept behavior of the brilliant as not just eccentric, but callous, excused by some personal personality lack such as "Aspergers Syndrome" when it is just plain not caring about anyone other than him or herself. Brilliance does not have to exclude caring about the welfare of others...but it seems to make good story when the genius is a detective. Conan Doyle made Holmes that way without even knowing about Aspergers. Or, perhaps it is just self absorption on the characters' and writers' part. Maybe we just shouldn't care.

  4. Irene -
    That's the one thing I like about HOUSE (though I don't watch it). He's a sour, pill popping, arrogant, rude, pill-popping mysonginist and he makes no bones about it. Because he's brilliant at what he does, he keeps his job. But still a jackhole and that's OK by him. I respect that kind of character (though have no desire to interact) a lot more than those whose like behaviors are blamed on a disease