Friday, May 20, 2011

Spotlight: Sherlock (2010)

I've taken a little hiatus from the blog to take some time and think about what I want to do with it in the future.  It had become less fun and more like a chore, and the quality of the writing was way down as I struggled to post as many recommendations as possible.  The basic information was good and helpful to people based upon feedback, but that basic information (new releases, etc.) could be gleaned from other sources.  So from now on I will be posting on fewer days and trying to improve the quality of each post.

I also felt like I was only watching stuff to write about it, rather than watching stuff to enjoy it and write about it later.  So to break that pattern I decided to watch something a bit longer, take my time with it, and finally come back to write about it.  I chose the new Sherlock series created by Steven Moffat to test this new approach to the blog.

Masterpiece Mystery!: Sherlock (Steven Moffat, UK, 2010)
Netflix: This modern-day refresh of Sherlock Holmes has Arthur Conan Doyle's deductive genius (Benedict Cumberbatch) moving through London as a Web-adept consultant to Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) as an Afghan War vet who shares his Baker Street digs. Shedding the Victorian trappings but retaining the dark humor and clever wordplay, the opening season plunges Holmes into "A Study in Pink" and two other cases. Netflix link.

I've been intrigued by this new take on Sherlock Holmes because as many of you know I'm also a very big fan of Doctor Who, and Moffat has taken the reins from Russell T. Davies as head writer as of Season Five last year.  Various comparisons have been made between Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor and Benedict Cumberbatch's modern Sherlock (in fact, both of them have been nominated for BAFTAs).  It's also worth mentioning that Netflix Watch Instantly is also now streaming Season Five of Doctor Who, so if you do take the plunge and watch Sherlock you'll find some elements in the lead characters echoing with each other (the many "But of course....!" moments, just to name parallel).

But to get to Sherlock itself (and remember that if you're looking for it on Netflix Watch Instantly, the official American title is Masterpiece Mystery!: Sherlock), the series consists of three 90-minute episodes, and the lengths have advantages and disadvantages.  (The un-aired 60-minute pilot is included on the DVD set but is not on Netflix Watch Instantly.)  The advantage is that particularly in the opening episode, "A Study in Pink," the extra time allows for more character development and interplay between Sherlock and his new colleague, John Watson.  The disadvantage is that the plots themselves do not always warrant 90-minutes, which is particularly true for the second episode, "The Blind Banker."  I'll say more about the second episode below, but for now let me focus on the two strong episodes, "A Study in Pink" and "The Great Game"

Sometimes modernizing classic characters can come off as forced or too silly.  For the most part, the modernization of Sherlock Holmes works well in part because the series emphasizes how he interacts with the information age and is able to process what most of the rest of us would not notice.  Perhaps the best stylistic manifestation of this is the show's stylistic gambit of integrating cell phone text messages on the screen rather than cutting to close ups of the phone or computer.  Information is therefore simply integrated into the flow of the scene as Sherlock continues to multi-task and observe and converse with those around him.  At times the device gets a bit too cutesy, especially with its initial use in a police press conference in which multiple cell phones receive the same message from Sherlock.  But once this effect becomes familiar things calm down the device becomes particularly useful for conveying aspects of Sherlock's character.  Once we understand the parallel between the device and how we ourselves might integrate such information in our own daily life, Moffat and the directors take things one step further and integrate other kinds of information on the screen to parallel how Sherlock's heightened powers of observation and deduction process what for us would be a sensory overload.

The iconic characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson are also given a modern re-boot.  Watson is a wounded veteran of the Afghanistan conflict, and while I thought this was used to great effect in the first third of episode one, I was disappointed that his experience as a modern veteran has not been as effectively integrated into the rest of the series.  Sherlock on the other hand is portrayed as having the social skills just shy of Asperger's Syndrome, and some of the police warn Watson that Holmes may be just shy of criminal pathology himself.  What leaves the strongest impression about the pair beyond these modern twists, however, have more to do with the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson themselves.  They both have great chemistry as they give the time-tested Holmes/Watson banter a breath of fresh air, while at the same time self-consciously acknowledging the gay subtext of it all (were Doyle's Homes and Watson the original bromance?).  And of course both Holmes and Watson have a presence on the web: Holmes has a website called The Science of Deduction (which you can visit here), and Watson's blog about his adventures with Holmes (which you can visit here) becomes the source of the stories, just as Watson's journals were the fictional source of the Doyle's original Holmes stories.

The first and third episodes best utilize all of the factors mentioned above and are relatively flamboyant in terms of narration and style.  And while my overall reaction to the series was positive (I'm not going to blog much about things I don't want you to see) I do have to mention how horrible I thought the second episode was.  It feels like an after thought, and it even has to introduce a new police foil for Holmes as Detective Inspector Lestrade is not in the episode.  The series was created by Moffat and Mark Gatiss, and since they wrote the first and third episodes, respectively, they clearly had a better handle on the material.  But "The Blind Banker," written by Steven Thompson, plays like a 90-minute version of a 60-minute cop show from the 1970s, and a villainous secret Chinese organization that at times seems to come out of a 1930s serial.  The episode also introduces the thankless role of Sarah, a potential love interest for Watson.  While her character initially shows some promise as she hires Watson, showing Watson's difficulty adjusting back to post-Afghanistan life, she quickly turns into little more than the potential victim of violence in the protracted climax.  Luckily she only makes a passing appearance in "The Great Game," and until they decide what to do with her character she hopefully won't return.  That said, what still does manage to save the episode from complete dismissal is the chemistry between Holmes and Watson, which continues to develop in interesting ways in the episode.

The first and third episodes both work as individual episodes and as pieces of an overall story-arc involving Holmes's arch-rival Moriarity (episode two also has a component of the arc, but again nearly as an afterthought).  The first episode has a clever twist on the revelation of Moriarity, and the third episode picks up on interesting connections to the first.  At times the mysterious Moriarity seems a bit too much like a 1960s super-villain with seemingly endless resources.  But the cat-and-mouse between Holmes and Moriarity, even when it strains credibility, is deliciously entertaining. And within this arc Watson also has an interesting development, as he realizes that Holmes will do anything to avoid losing in a game of wits; Watson's conscience has to decide to what degree he will enable Holmes in potentially self-destructive behavior. 

In an effort to make this blog more interactive, I'm going to experiment with some polls using Polldaddy.  When you get a chance to watch Sherlock, let me know what you think.

Edit 5/23/11: From the BAFTA awards:  "Sherlock won the best Drama Series award, beating Being Human, Downton Abbey and Misfits. Martin Freeman also won under the Sherlock banner for best Supporting Actor."

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