Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Have You Unlocked Sherlock?

     As I’m sure many writers started out, I spent a major portion of my childhood carrying around chapter-books wherever I went. Sometimes they were the usual moody preteen paperback fantasies, but after some time I felt as if I had come to the end of all interesting literature (which is of course absurd, but that’s the delusion of adolescence for you).

     Just as I was finishing up primary school (and often reading during the lessons, which I was still acing, I might add), my mother handed me a thick old tome with the silhouette of a slender bust on the front: it was the portrait of some man with a long nose, a proud chin, and a stout little pipe. I had at last come to that great classic, with which many are familiar but few actually read.

     Frankly, one would have to live under a rock not to have noticed the recent flux in the popularity of Mr. Holmes in the last decade: the genius detective has not been protected by copyright for some time, due to the expiration of author’s rights after a certain number of years. But lately, television and motion picture companies alike have been competing to produce the best homage to Arthur Canon Doyle’s beloved antihero.

     Most Americans are likely familiar with the somewhat comical Robert Downey Jr. films by Warner Bros. (also the creators of the Looney Toons… how fitting). They definitely read into Holmes’ genius and his substance addictions, which were certainly present in the novels (though in a more subtle way). However, the films relied more on spectacle and comedy than on actually allowing the audience to solve the cases themselves. Not that anybody would have been able to, of course, but if Holmes himself had been a viewer, he would have been just as stumped as the rest of us due to much undisclosed information in the storylines such as smells or tastes. Not to mention Downey’s distinct lack of resemblance to Holmes as he has been known to appear.

     But I digress. At the moment, there are two major television shows that are attempting to unlock the genius of Holmes using a modern lens. While the hit series House based much of its main character on the Sherlock of legend, the two shows that I’m referring to have actually adapted the character in the flesh, by name: the American series Elementary, which has added the new dynamic of a female Dr. Watson… and the much-acclaimed BBC saga entitled simply, Sherlock. I will be talking about the latter, for those of you who have seen (and probably have come to fear) plenty of its fans.

     And don’t worry; the entire description will, of course, be spoiler-free.

Hogwarts Sherlock, A History

     In 2010, the BBC took a pair of relatively unknown actors named Martin Freeman of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy...

     ...and Benedict Cumberbatch of Amazing Grace...

     ...and stuck them together in a fun little series that really defied the normal mold of most television shows. For one thing, most dramas air ten to fifteen hour-long episodes per season. With Sherlock, each episode ended up nearly two hours in length, and each season was only made up of three episodes. In a sense, Sherlock wasn’t so much a series as it was a set of straight-to-television movies.

     But the format wasn’t the only thing that worked in Sherlock: the actors fell into place with perfect chemistry, and their acting careers certainly took off from there (and they even worked together again in New Line Cinema’s The Hobbit trilogy, which almost any fan of the BBC could tell you in their sleep... so if it's new information to you, don't let on to your friends).

     But what’s a show without a script? And what’s a script without a good writer? Well, the BBC broke out their golden boys for that: Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Having enjoyed the benefits of placing the show Doctor Who under these men (with record-shattering results), the BBC was able to take a very trusting hands-off approach with Sherlock after Moffat and Gatiss took the reigns. Both writers, known for their convoluted genius and unparalleled humor, took the mysteries written by Arthur Canon Doyle and gave each a new, modern twist.

     For some time after 2012, a third season was rumoured but unconfirmed — Freeman, Cumberbatch, Moffat, and Gatiss all had separate blossoming careers, and it was suggested that the show might never be renewed…

     ...but after much agonized waiting by a growing fan base, Season 3 came to fruition and blew away the television world (and much of the internet) in 2014 with hardly any effort at all. And now, with a special in the works for Christmas 2015 and a fourth season confirmed for 2016, it would seem that the ratings (and furious internet rantings) tell the rest of the story.

The Plot

     As in the original mysteries, a rather ordinary military doctor John Watson returns to Jolly Old England and finds himself a fellow bachelor to split the rent with: a rather odd, eccentric, yet strangely genius man by the name of Sherlock Holmes who works as a detective. Soon Doctor Watson finds himself alongside Holmes on all sorts of escapades, investigating unexplainable crimes that lead them into situations that range from comical to perilous; meeting many characters of questionable or undeniably psychopathic countenances; and, of course, solving crime waves and saving the British Empire.

The Appeal

     As mentioned briefly above, a large portion of this show’s appeal lies in the intricate genius of its writers and the chemistry of its lead actors.

     There’s great comedy in watching the eccentric Holmes make unorthodox demands of Dr. Watson (rather like watching the neurotic Sheldon Cooper quarrel with Leonard Hofstadter over "proper behavior" in The Big Bang Theory).

     And I can’t help but feel a sense of awe at the incredibly detailed masterpiece plots that Moffat and Gatiss have produced. Even if the cases are based on already-existent literature, transferring the crimes into modern settings requires so much focus that it’s uncanny. Every time I watch an episode of Sherlock, I (as a writer) feel intimidated, as if I’m in the presence of the next great classic novel (albeit in cinematic form).

     But I think that perhaps one of the most central factors contributing to the show’s popularity often goes overlooked. Simply this: the audience is provided with all of the information necessary to solve the cases themselves. When Holmes touches a surface, we’re told whether it’s wet or dry. When he looks a suspect over, we see the dog hair and imported watch and tailor-made suit that he sees. We may not be smart enough to solve the mysteries presented on Sherlock, but if Holmes were in the flesh to watch the saga for himself, he would have all the clues necessary to reach every conclusion.

     And it's because of this feature that the fans often go into hyper-detective mode, trying to search for clues to solve unanswered questions between seasons. I've seen many incredible fan-theories, one of which [involving a seemingly-insignificant little squash ball] even turned out to be correct in the long run.

     And as an added bonus to the fun of the show, writers Moffat and Gatiss like to poke fun at their fans.

     The third season especially was laden with multiple tributes to the madness that tends to come with formulating theories about Sherlock...


The Rating

     This show is a solid PG-13, but some of the psychological battles (and a few more sexualized episodes) might not be suited for anyone under sixteen.

     Violence: This is a show about modern crimes and masochistic psychopaths. While we may not encounter something as gruesome as, say, Hannibal Lector or Jack the Ripper… there is no shortage of blood, hostages, and cringe-worthy deaths.

     Sex: While, to the modern reader, the unencumbered Irene Adler of the original books was simply a forward thinker… this show’s version of the scandalous lady is certainly not for children or the faint of heart. Nudity, innuendos, and some very revealing clothing abound, as the lady in question has a nearly-illegal career.

     Language: Some Americans may not catch all of the bile in the British slang, but there are enough serious adult words scattered throughout that it’s still best to reserve the show for a mature audience.

The Genre

     This is a modern drama that pays homage to classic murder mysteries and thriller novels: there are dark moments where the souls of men are laid bare, and there are equally many scenes that will have audiences in stitches thanks to the blunt British humour of having an irritating genius for a roommate.

     Right and wrong are often discussed, but they seem to be more and more opaque as time goes on. Many protagonists are brought into situations where the only right solution to their problem is still a questionable action. This certainly isn’t the show meant to answer anyone’s moral dilemmas, but it will certainly get its audience thinking (and perhaps checking out a few extra books on religion, philosophy, and crime-solving at the library).

     So is it worth it?

The Decision

     That depends on you. For one thing, this show is the only British rendition of Sherlock Holmes to be made since the turn of the century… and as the original novels are of British make, it’s generally a more respectable choice than Elementary or the Warner Bros. movies. However, the show certainly tap-dances on some dark criminal themes that aren’t meant for young viewers.

     But I can assure you of one thing, above all else, if you choose to watch Sherlock: You. Will. Not. Be. Bored.

    And if you’re worried about getting caught up, don’t fret too awfully about it. You do have to start at the beginning to understand the deep network of plot twists and criminal webs, but remember: one of the show’s advantages is its unorthodox format. It’s less like three seasons of a TV show and more like nine separate feature films. Even if you simply watch one episode every weekend to unwind, you’ll still be finished in three months (long before the Christmas special arrives). It would be quite similar to watching through all eight of the Harry Potter films.

     And if you’re still on the fence, just give it time. There are plenty of fan-made trailers on Youtube that might interest you if you’re more of a visual person (like myself). Though personally, this official trailer for the first season is my favorite.


     In the end, I’d recommend that you not only sit down to this whirlwind of a show — I’d recommend that you have some friends join you for the viewing. This series is a perfect popcorn-stuffer and will thrill your social group just as much as any movie might. It’ll leave you laughing, gasping, and often in speechless awe… because, like its protagonist, Sherlock is nothing but unparalleled genius.


  1. Yeah, even though I recognise it's problematic in some ways, Sherlock is truly a work of genius. The cinematography is nothing short of phenomenal. Excellent recap!

  2. Yeah, even though I recognise it's problematic in some ways, Sherlock is truly a work of genius. The cinematography is nothing short of phenomenal. Excellent recap!

  3. Very thorough post! I love this show so much.

    Also: did you hear the rumors that the episode coming out this Christmas will be a Victorian special? I'm so excited! Photo: https://wegeekgirls.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/sherlock_christmas-special4.jpg

  4. I have wanted to watch this show for so long now! Maybe I can convince my mom to watch it with me, I think she would like it. (-: Wonderful review without any spoilers. You answered quite a few of my questions.

  5. I am totally and completely in love with this show. Loved reading through this review. :)