Friday, June 2, 2017

BBC Sherlock Revisited

Last week, I received Season 4, Disk 1 of the BBC Sherlock program, inspiring me to update my previous comments (from over 2 years ago!) on the show.

As you'll possibly recall, I did not take very strongly to the show at first.  I watched Season 1, was like meh, waited some time, then started over and got through Seasons 1-3.  Then after a long hiatus, I watched the first episode of Season 4 and was sort of meh again.  I'm conflicted.  There are many things to like about it, but that's boring to talk about.  Instead, here are the things I'm not so crazy about.

(1) It is too faithful to the original given the modern setting

I know, "too faithful" is a weird objection, isn't it?  It's not one I'd expect to make.  My sense is that a lot of people like this about the show.

(a)  Sherlock's approach to crime-solving is still presented as cutting-edge, when it's not

The original Sherlock Holmes (SH) was operating far outside the bounds of police work in his era.  In those days, the cops were big guys who would round up the usual suspects after a crime and "interrogate" them until someone confessed.  The use of forensic evidence was basically non-existent.  (Indeed, modern forensic scientists credit/revere SH as their patron saint.)  Using careful observation and logic to solve a crime was just not how things were done at all.  It's very hard for us to appreciate how revolutionary SH was for his time.  At least watching/reading SH set in Conan Doyle's period, we can see how different SH's approach was from that of his contemporaries in the police force.

But SH is less inherently mind-bogglingly brilliant when set in modern times.  In a world in which police detectives are trained in investigative technique, teams of forensic scientists gather and analyze crime scene evidence as a matter of course, and audiences have been watching CSI and its spin-offs for approximately 329 seasons, his approach is just not so revolutionary.  Yes, he's better at it than most people, but he is not, as Benedict Cumberbatch's SH claims, "the world's only consulting detective," is he?  I mean, consulting detective is kind of a thing now.  I guess SH doesn't keep up much with pop culture or he'd realize that there are a bunch of consultants working with the police on TV shows--Castle, Patrick Jane from The Mentalist, Bones, Cal Lightman in Lie to Me, Charlie Epps in Numbers.  I mean, Monk was working as a consulting detective way back in 2002.

(b) SH is the only smart person in the world (except for Mycroft), and he isn't reliably smart enough

The original SH stories are set between 1894 and 1927.  100 years ago, average IQs were probably about 30 points lower than they are now.  Researchers have described the mind-sets of typical people in that era as utilitarian, concrete, uncomfortable dealing with hypotheticals...not that different from how Inspector Lestrade is described in the stories, really.  So SH would have stood out in that world for his basic smarts alone.

But today, the somewhat bumbling detectives (I mean, is there any reason at all to believe that Detective Lestrade in this version is intelligent at all?), the well-meaning but not very bright companion (to be fair, they nuance that as the show progresses, but you hire Martin Freeman to play an Everyman)--these characters just don't feel quite right.

However, my biggest beef here is this:  SH absolutely must be universally smarter than the audience, right?  But in Season 4, Episode 1, on two different occasions, sitting in my chair with a migraine and holding a bag of frozen vegetables to my head, I connected the dots faster than SH.  WTF.  Thinking back, I'm guessing they did that thing that I loathe--having a character behave (uncharacteristically) stupidly so as to advance the plot.  ARGH.  And I don't mean "behave stupidly" in the general sense here of making poor decisions or reacting with inappropriate emotion or impulsivity.  I mean, SH was inconceivably slow to draw obvious inferences, and there was no reason implied in the episode for him to do so, other than it set up two convenient confrontations (one implausibly physical) that end dramatically.  About 70% of the meh I'm feeling toward this series right now comes from that aspect of that episode.

(c) The portrayal of drug use is completely unrealistic

As in the original stories, SH uses drugs when bored, then gives them up when he's on a case.  Perhaps the neuroscientific understanding of Conan Doyle's era was sufficiently underdeveloped that this seemed plausible in the day.  But we now know that being "smart" does not magically make you immune to heroin addiction.  Even where the original SH is concerned, I've argued to my mom that we only know SH through the stories Watson writes, and Watson could easily be an unreliable narrator, covering up for SH by leaving out all the ways drug addiction fucks him up.  This is very different from the screen Sherlocks that are presented more objectively.

(d)  And really, it's just all a bit been there, done that so far, except for the parts that are ludicrous (e.g., the entire Mary storyline that is so ridiculous it makes me feel sort of Hulk Smash)

(2) There are too few episodes to tell this story well

When I returned to Season 4, I realized I didn't remember enough of the backstory, so I read a summary of Season 3...all three episodes of it.  There were only 9 prior episodes in total.  This results in a show that feels like it's all main story arc.

When you move from major plot point to major plot point with nothing in between (for example, in Season 4, Episode 1, a lot of time is shown to pass during a maybe one minute scene in which the various cases solved in the interval are flashed on the screen as Watson's blog post titles), with no time to see the characters as they are on an average Tuesday, no opportunity to see them interact in mundane circumstances over time, no exposure to who they are--for me, that hugely diminishes the experience of watching TV.  One of the great advantages of TV is that you get to know the characters, how they fit together and with their world...and you see the (sometimes subtle) changes that occur over time.  This show cheats us of that.

I guess because the characters are so familiar, they are relying on us to fill in the blanks.  But then when something novel is added, your basic "universe of Sherlock Holmes" schema is inadequate, or worse, makes that whole thing feel implausible.  For example, the entire plot around Watson's wife Mary feels utterly contrived, and the relationship between Mary and SH doesn't feel at all authentic because the audience never directly sees how many of this could have happened.

It's like if the Outlander series had 3 episodes so the relationship went like (1) Claire goes back in time and meets Jamie, (2) now Claire and Jamie are in love and get married, and (3) oops Culloden is happening so Claire goes back to the future.  You'd be like WTF, I thought she loved Frank, but now she's suddenly with this other dude and they get along so well despite having 200 years of social expectations between them and were they trying to stop this war from happening or...forget it.

One specific way (out of many) that the lack of time irritates me is that we never, ever see SH working at anything.  I mean, it's implied that he designs and executes various plans, but we don't see evidence that he ever studies things or conducts experiments or gathers data (like, you know, every SH does).  He's just presented as this natural genius who somehow magically has all this knowledge with no effort that he then applies immediately in the moment to solve every case [you know, except when he's overlooking the obvious for no reason].  Give me a break, even Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who was literally magically endowed with super abilities like "physical strength, endurance, agility, accelerated healing, intuition, and a limited degree of clairvoyance," had to do her step workouts to keep in shape.

My basic experience of the show is that I have been given no time to become interested in or care about any of the characters at all.  There is good writing and excellent acting focused on communicating these dramatic interpersonal moments, but I'm like, "yeah, I can see that this is a big thing going on here but meh, whatever" because they haven't really laid the groundwork for it.  And absent a really fascinating main story arc or super-clever episode mysteries, isn't being interested in what happens to the characters what we're left with?  Better shows give us all three of these things.

This all being said, I'm going to keep watching it.  I am curious about how SH will rebound from his recent stupidity.

Edited to add:  Ah, I almost forgot until I watched this Honest Trailer Robert sent (haha, nice) that I am deeply bored with the stupid floating text gimmick.


Jen M. said...

Lol. I didn't expect you to reveal that you would keep watching it. Quite the plot twist!

Sally said...

Haha, I like to keep you guessing ;)

Mom said...

I thought the whole fourth season was just weird.

Sally said...

Oh boy, I guess I'm in for it...