Digital Polyphony

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Sherlock is Awesome

Posted on May 9, 2012 at 8:25 AM

Sherlock is Awesome

One of the longest running characters in film has been Sherlock Holmes. Going back to the early silent era, the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character and his partner, Dr. Watson, have been interpreted in a variety of forms when it comes to the visual portrayal at the theater or in your home. Some concentrate on the adventure aspect of Holmes, such as the recent Robert Downey Jr films, others the investigating, notably the Basil Rathbone series, such as and in all cases Holmes has been a cerebral, incredibly intelligent and often eccentric consulting detective. A few interpretations even dabbled more in the comedy side, such as The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes or, again, the Robert Downey Jr. efforts that are often tongue-in-cheek.

Each interpretation has their pros and cons. The Basil Rathbone series are often the most intriguing in terms of mysteries, yet have faults such as setting (which was changed to modern times but more for propaganda reasons), Dr. Watson coming across as a side kick and occasionally a buffoon and Sherlock himself being rather dry lacking a personality to along with his brilliance. A personal favorite of mine, Murder by Decree, had a fantastic concept of Sherlock investigating Jack the Ripper, but it was a film that seemed to be all over the place and lacks focus. The recent Downy Jr. / Guy Ritchie films have great chemistry of the characters, and I love the Steampunk-inspired take of Victorian England, but are often over-reaching in their scope and have a style that can be a turn off with over use.

All are good in their own right. Truth be told, the flaws don't out way the things they do right, nor do the various interpretations of the classic detective put him in a bad light. He's still Sherlock in all cases. Smart, brilliant, and knows what he's doing.

But there's one Sherlock that's really been getting some traction and I'm happy to say I've been enjoying immensely: The BBC show…errr…."Sherlock."

Like the Rathbone series, this one takes Sherlock and puts him into a modern setting. Here, it's even more interesting as technology plays an integral role. Cell phones, computers, Dr. Watson's blog, the pop-culture nature of Sherlock's celebrity status, upping the ante of Sherlock's forensic approach - it's an interesting take in terms of setting, but it's really Sherlock himself that's the most interesting.

This Sherlock is also one of the more expressive when he needs to be.

Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a name that feels as though he should be a Lord and own some land somewhere, this Sherlock Holmes is a bit comparable to Downey Jr's Sherlock. He's constantly thinking, often cold to others, observant and in his own world most of the time, plans far, far ahead and speaks out his thoughts as though we could possibly understand him. The take, though, is far more straightforward: he is given cases and solves them. I've seen all six episodes of the series, which recently just wrapped up its second season (each episode is about an hour and a half) and have enjoyed them immensely.

The cases are always engaging, even if on paper they seem incredibly simplistic, the interpretation of them and the character into the modern setting (best noted in the Baskerville episode which throws in the government-experiment twist) and the change up of characters (notably Moriarty who is an idiot savant rather than a brilliant genius) are far from faithful in the literal sense, yet they are in spirit. I think when it comes to adaptation, faithfulness in spirit is far more important than trying to be exact in every detail.

This Sherlock is also a tad more vulnerable (as in, a it more human than superhuman) than we've seen him in other versions. Considering the modern setting and cases, it's only natural to approach him in a more modern take as a modern man. He's sensitive, but often doesn't realize it until too late, and knows deep down he is cold - often leading to regrets. He's not the "superhero" version we've seen in the past in some films - always focusing on the case and with little concern for what's around him. A "man's man…in the gentleman's sense" you might say. Here, he's a loner, has a sense of humor, cares about his friends and even falls in love. Well, infatuated more than love, but either way he has chinks in his armor.

His associate, Dr. Watson, is played by Martin Freeman. They found a great balance here. Watson is far from Sherlock's equal, however he is also his connection to the "real" world. As Sherlock often loses touch and connections to actual people, Watson brings him in and plays the role for him. A perfect example(s) are the various interviews, Sherlock often impatient and wants to focus on relevant facts (relevant to him) however Watson willing to listen and take heart to what the person is saying - sometimes even revealing more for Sherlock to take in. Sherlock is clinical, to the point whereas Watson is a listener and able to be a liaison. He's the every man for us to understand how Sherlock works. In other words, Sherlock is the brains, Watson the heart. Cliche, I know, but their chemistry makes for incredible fun and their interactions with other people shows the strengths and weaknesses of both characters.

Holmes still enjoys the violin on the left, and on the right a smirky Moriarty.

The show is only six episodes thus far, covering two seasons, and each episode is a feature length hour and a half. Below I cover them, spoilers kept to a minimum as much as possible, but I can give you a quick summary: watch them all.


Season One

A Study in Pink

A Study in Pink is about a good first episode of any television series I've seen. It doesn't try to do too much, keeps the story and mystery rather simple but incredibly intriguing, and really gives us a look into our characters. It's a Watson-heavy episode, as he's our eyes and ears into this wondrous world of consulting detectives, asshole older brothers and Scotland Yard mysteries. A Study in Pink manages to detail the entire foundation the series will base itself, introducing nearly all of the main characters and still manages to tell a great mystery story along the way.

The big focus, as mentioned, is Watson. Martin Freeman plays up the ex-soldier angle well. He's a bit more haunted than past Watsons, carries a bag of regrets with him I'm thinking, and we have great insight into his character and how it eventually meshes with Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes, an eccentric odd genius of a man that allows Watson to realize who he is in the process. It's this self-realization arc that really carries the episode as Watson comes to find a purpose now that he's no longer in a war. It's also wonderfully structured with this framing device and gives a satisfactory sense of completion to the end.

Another foundation this first episode sets is the style. It's fast, frantic and sometimes hallucinatory as we look at the world through Sherlock Holmes' eyes. Text appears as a part of the world (sometimes it's Sherlock's analysis, other times it's literally a text message from a phone), you have to pay attention to the small details that flash across and the lines that Sherlock is drawing to connect them and you certainly have to pay attention to the dialogue: the show's strength from this episode all the way through. It's purposeful, fast, sometimes poignant sometimes funny, always delivered in a casual but appealing manner from Holmes then, often, regurgitated through Watson because, as I said, he's our eyes and ears and can actually make sense of it all.

This first episode sets the standard, as far as I'm concerned. It's perfect in damn near every way, though the show will soon take a darker turn and give us a grander scope, as this episode foreshadows upon with one name: Moriarty.

Favorite Moment: The moment that really set the standard for what the show is all about: Holmes detailing what he's seeing regarding a corpse, his conclusions and the connection to everything. The first mention of Moriarty I'd throw in there as well. Small, but a cool moment.

Also, the opening with Watson and how we're introduced to this world. Really well done.


The Blind Banker

I have to be completely upfront, I wasn't a fan of this episode. Sure, you have Sherlock still doing his incredible thing, but Watson really feels in the background for most of it and, to be honest, I just wasn't that interested in the story. The decrypting of the code was a bit haphazard and everything far more forced and a little more contrived than what we got in the first (and soon the third) episode. Still loved the chemistry of Holmes and Watson, still admire the directing and approach to style, but nothing really grabbed me.

It's a very standalone episode too. The characters don't really develop and there's only a small hint at the "bigger picture" we'll come to know in the coming episodes. I feel this episode was just a filler, which is hard for me to say because it still does a lot of things well, it just doesn't that intangible hook of every other episode in the two seasons.

Favorite Moment: Probably Sherlock's manipulation at the end, something the show will soon be known for, and the dark shootout in the tunnels.


The Great Game

The Great Game indeed. The show takes us out of the realm of small crimes and murders and right into something grandiose. This is such a structurally perfect episode, it's hard to find a single fault in it. You're hooked from beginning to end as we start small, a seemingly inconsequential case that only slightly has Sherlock's interest, then it gets bigger and bigger as we pull back the layers, sift through the twists and reveals and end with one hell of a cliffhanger at the end (though, it kind of is diminished in the first episode of Season 2).

We soon realize as Sherlock follows the trail of bodies, that there's something bigger at work. As fans, we know it's Moriarty. We have a presumption of who he is and what to expect, but the show teaches us a great lesson in this episode: this isn't a "traditional" Holmes. We've known that, with the influence of technology and a direct reference to Holmes having a mental illness, but when Moriarty is revealed, it's just gleefully, wonderfully "fresh."

The fact is, he's a nutcase. I love this take, though. Moriarty is every bit as brilliant as Sherlock, yet is about four or five steps further down the line of being completely closed off from reality. He's more anarchist, but anarchy with a purpose - if that could possibly make any sense.

The only downside to this episode is that Moriarty really overshadows everything else. I recall the case, but the usual humor and chemistry of Watson and Holmes is a bit fuzzy to me now (other than a funny bit with a phone number, though again that's overshadowed by Moriarty and I certainly won't spoil it here). I'm willing to let it slide, though, because this is an episode I'm more than happy to watch again...and probably again after that...

Favorite Moment: A number, but anything involving Moriarty, especially how he's really been playing Sherlock for some time. The reveal of Moriarty is spectacular, and the decision to make him the way he is, a man that could easily snap at any moment, is a great new take on a character that truly feels like a threat.


Season Two

A Scandal in Belgravia

A Scandal in Belgravia is pretty aware of its own complexity. In fact, Sherlock, in usual Sherlock exposition fashion at the end of the episode, notes to Irene Adler at the end that it was even too good for her in a way. In this episode, Sherlock falls hard for a woman, yet the episode doesn't have him head-over-heels. In fact, that's sort of the running theme of this entire episode: Sherlock's coldness. There's a scene where he brings a woman to near-tears, spouting out passive-aggressive insults, then realizes she had a gift for him the entire time. In rare fashion, Sherlock legitimately apologizes and you can sense the immediate regret. I loved that moment.

His "love" for Adler, though, is a combination of infatuation and intrigue. He can't get a read on her (literally, the show's usual flurry of on-screen text as we see through his eyes only gives us "?????" on a repeated basis). It's hard to know if he's actually in love, but there's no denying that, in his own way, he cares for her even if she is a bit more of the villainous sort. Overall, the episode is good, perhaps a bit overly-complex for its own good, and I like the abundance of Mycroft, Sherlock's brother, into the mix. Definitely not an episode to start with either, I feel seeing the previous three would benefit in regards to character development.

Also, and I'm not lying in this regard, I got a nice wave of goosebumps in the final minute or so. The show knows twists, and this one was a great one and is really the first episode where we really see a more human side of Sherlock in his desire for a connection to someone beyond his "one friend."

Favorite Moment: Holmes and Watson in Buckingham palace, and Holmes wearing only a sheet. Just the image alone is great.


The Hounds of Baskerville

Though it doesn't quite reach the heights of a few past episodes, this is a great episode for a number of reasons. One, it takes Sherlock out of London, much as the original story did, and dabbles in myths and folklore, conspiracies and fear and so forth. The second reason is how it took the original story, which has been really done to death because it is Sherlock's most famous case, and redid it in a way that was fresh and new. The third is entirely the tone: it's something new in terms Sherlock. It's dark. Scary. Sherlock himself even showing signs of actual fear.

Like the first season's second episode, this one is a good standalone. It doesn't have a ton of foreshadowing or callbacks, just a really good story and I think the best episode to be introduced to the series if you can't, for whatever reason, get to the first season. I love the reinvention of the story. Instead of a Baskerville family, we have the Baskerville base. You know the military is doing some nasty things and, well, that's the mystery to be solved. I'm not going to spell it out for you (though, here, it is a bit easy to figure it out early, and even when Sherlock is doing his "experiments" you know pretty much what's going on even if he's still testing his theory).

The climax and finale feels a bit, I don't know, forced. Everything was moving along pretty naturally, and the inclusion of a "scary" element consistent and interesting, but the showdown sequence and reveal feels pretty cheap overall. Everything up to that point I loved. The setting. The characters were top notch. The darker tone. But then the finale came and, well, the sense of satisfaction actually feels similar to that of the second episode of the first season: The Blind Banker.

Favorite moment: Lestrade trying to think of a word to describe Sherlock's mind and Watson ending it with "aspergers." Small moment, but loved it. In a broader sense, there's a great moment where the character Henry (the client for this episode) is sitting in his home and the motion detecting lights keep going off in his back yard.


The Reichenbach Fall

 I'm starting to sense a trend. Every third episode, the last of the season, will be a Moriarty episode. I suppose there's no way around that. If you're going to end, you end big and there really is nobody bigger in the Sherlock world than his arch nemesis. My God, where to begin on this one, though?

Moriarty is setting up Sherlock for a fall. He plants a seed early on that there is a doubt about Sherlock's abilities, then after manipulating everyone under the sun, you see it all come to fruition. Red Herrings, false leads, cloak and daggers at their finest. I almost don't want to say too much here (this episode hasn't aired in the US yet and if you haven't seen it, one little drop of detail might just ruin it) but I can run it down in a few thoughts:

1) The bit with the hat has been running all through this seas. It's funny, and it continues on here. Watson even calls it a "Sherlock Holmes hat" - which it is. A funny bit of self reflection and a nice homage to past interpretations of the character (FYI, Sherlock was never actually described as wearing it in the books, this show kind of gives a nod to that as well as Sherlock actually hates wearing it).

2) There's a great balance between Holmes and Watson in this episode. Probably the best since the first episode in terms of their abilities, contribution and overall friendship that develops. Each have strengths, weaknesses and all the joys in between. Holmes is certainly put in a vulnerable state here too, which allows Watson to really shine. Also a note, Watson returns to his therapist, giving it all a bookend-style to the first episode because that's how that episode began.

3) Moriarty is, officially, the best character in the show. Again, not to give too much away, he plays Sherlock like a violin (pardon the pun). The stakes are so incredibly high, but you know it's going to be a cliffhanger when you realize you only have 15 minutes left in the show and there's no way they can resolve everything.

4) I don't know if this is the best episode of the series, but it's up there and I certainly wouldn't argue against someone calling it that. I'm still a fan of the first, and the Baskerville episode is a guilty pleasure, but there's something just brilliant about this one. Hell, so goes the whole show.


Well, if you haven't been able to tell by now, I'm a fan. I'm not the only one, the show is huge in England and is gathering quite the cult following here in the States. Sherlock does what a lot of "really smart guys solving cases" shows are trying to do on television and unlike those, it really gets it all right. I think a lot of that is thanks to the long-form format and the show's luxury of putting together competent scripts. That, of course, is in thanks to the way British television works in the first place, and also why when a show gets it right across the pond, it really gets it right.

With a focus of smart storytelling, interesting cases, enough sparing chases and shootouts to get your blood pumping. fantastic character writing and chemistry and a hell of a lot of style, Sherlock has a little bit of something for everyone. Go see it. Now. The first season is streaming on Netflix and the second season is currently airing on its home, PBS.

PS, I will leave you with a link: Unflattering Sherlock Screencaps. You're Welcome.

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