Note – I wrote this article as part of my college assignment.
Sherlock Holmes, the protagonist of BBC’s Sherlock, based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective stories of the same name, is the Superman both for intellectuals and otherwise. The aspect about him that endears more than his alchemic ability to crack cases is his role as a savior, a protector of his near and dear ones. The series would’ve been bloodless and only a cerebral exercise that drew in a selected upper-crust of the intelligentsia had it sapped out sentiment, and creator Mark Gatiss and writer Steven Moffat wisely avoid that. That’s precisely why the series has become so popular amongst audiences and, in a way, is endangering itself over time. The last season (season 3) teetered on the saccharine by unwisely putting breaks on the mystery, Sherlock’s ultimate takeaway, to camp on the chemistry between the series’ recurring characters. I hope the mistake isn’t repeated in the upcoming season, predicted to hit televisions by 2016.
It is the first two seasons are the tenderloins of the whole series, brilliant because the case is the cake here while the chemistry is the cherry and not the other way round. The former is stacked with puzzle-solving, but it isn’t one that invites audiences to a guessing game because that’s Sherlock’s territory. We’re left at his mercy as he deconstructs the crime scene and his suspects to make observations, notice patterns and ultimately form an assumption that mostly turns out right. This is evidenced in the first episode, titled A Study in Pink based on a story of the same name, in which the then unknown consultant detective gets almost every first impression on Watson correct, including the fact that the latter was gifted a phone by his sibling; he only gets the sibling’s gender wrong and unless you’re a total sod who’s critical of just about everything on planet Earth and beyond, you’ll be super impressed by Holmes’ almost supernatural abilities.
There’s usually an unsolved problem which persist throughout the episode and put things in place once figured out, for example, a name (A Study in Pink) a cryptic number (The Blind Banker), a neglected case (The Great Game), a password (Scandal in Belgravia), an acronym (Hound of Baskervilles). And although the characters and certain situations may seem familiar, Moffat, who also stars in the series as Sherlock’s elder brother Mycroft Holmes, has worked expertly to revise the storylines, make them compact to work as ninety minute episodes and revamp scenarios to the present world (instead of basing the stories as Watson’s personal writings as in Doyle’s books, for example, the series instead turns Watson into a popular blogger whose articles on their cases is what gives both Watson and Holmes popularity). I’ve always preferred Christie’s works to Doyle’s because even though both end up fooling readers by concealing some information until the climax, at least Christie’s works allows readers to participate in guessing games by throwing in irresistible clues at certain points while Doyle’s only rely on Sherlock’s lengthy deductions on how the murder was committed rather than who actually did it. On visual medium, however, it’s exhilarating to watch how differently Sherlock perceives the same scene to come up with extraordinary conclusions.
Moffat strength lies in not dumbing down the series for television audiences while retaining a widespread appeal. Sherlock’s observations are just as sharp, even more so now that the latest developments in science and technology are taken into account. His character himself is far more sharp-tongued than the Shelocks we’ve seen before, whether in Doyle’s series or the earlier BBC series or the cinematic adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. His insults and jabs hurt as much as Irene Adler’s whip (Alder, a professional dominatrix, is the woman he has a brief fling with in Scandal in Belgravia) and just about no one’s spared, not his buddy Watson nor his landlady Mrs. Hudson nor the Detective Inspector Lestrade nor his lab assistant Molly and certainly not the suspects or those who think they know better. Much friction, especially between Holmes and Watson, stems from Holmes’ cold, detached, asocial attitude as well as his inability to sympathize. It’s both enormously entertaining and touching to watch Holmes humanize through the series and until season 3, where goodness is forced onto him to the series’ detriment, the transition seems natural. Moffat also infuses quintessentially British humor, sophisticated, wry and pointed, to the script which is best witnessed in Sherlock’s jabs, his interactions with Holmes, his repartee with Mycroft and his small talk with Mrs. Hudson.
Seasons 1 and 2 are unmissable, the highlights being ‘A Study in Pink’, ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ and ‘Hound of Baskervilles’. Season 3 goes out of the way to be a crowd-pleaser, paying homage to the series’ fandom as well as to minor cases from Doyle’s series, and is criminally lackluster by comparison. In fact, one can skip Season 3 entirely by just keeping three things to memory – a. Sherlock’s alive b. his arch nemesis from the first 2 seasons Jim Moriarty is back and c. Watson’s married to Mary, a former assassin. Both Gatiss and Moffat need to reshift their focus back to the cases because in the absence of interesting cases, detective stories lose their novelty value rapidly and even the presence of a great cast can’t save it for long.
Both Jeremy Brett and Robert Downey’s portrayals of Sherlock have been strong and distinctive and for this series, its British actor Benedict Cumberbatch who takes on the detective’s role. Cumberbatch’s pale bony face, curly hair and tall and lean frame all suit his character’s distinctive appeal to a tee. This guy’s best playing emotionally aloof characters who stand out from the crowd and I’m sure he didn’t find it too big a challenge to find the right tone to his version of Sherlock; the unaired pilot episode, re-filmed with better production values and script alterations before being televised, in fact reveals he only had to get a shade or two nastier to become the Sherlock we’ve come to love. There is evidence of humanity in this Sherlock and if you look deeply into his eyes, you’ll catch it, and this is what differs him from his elder brother, who is more stoic and unpleasant than the former, which is why Sherlock’s way easier to root for. Both Cumberbatch and Moffat channel this difference in their characters which is applaud worthy. Martin Freeman, as Dr. Watson, is very amusing (his disaster dates in the first two seasons are especially a hoot) and charming; the promise of a homosexual bonding between Holmes and Watson, hinted in the first episode, doesn’t really pick up but it results in some hilarious quips and awkward moments that are a treat.
There is much to admire about the series’ cinematography, editing, production design and music. Jump cuts are used judiciously especially from Sherlock’s point-of-view as he zip-zaps through the various clues and takes mental notes, which appear as text on screen. It’s fascinating to enter Sherlock’s head, sometimes via POV shots and text, sometimes by actually placing him at the location he’s musing about and crisp camerawork and editing are to be credited for this. As for the production design, Gatiss puts its perfectly when he says ‘it fetishizes Modern London the way the period versions fetishize Victorian London’. The music, with violins frequently used, along with the jumpy camerawork is elemental in adding to the much needed pacing and tension. The most memorable tune, composed by David Arnold and Michael Price, is the one playing during the opening credits, which wonderfully encapsulates the tone of the series – dramatic, mysterious and exciting.
The best way to describe to end this review would be to use Irene Adler’s password that she’s kept to unlock her phone, which Holmes only decodes at the end of The Scandal in Belgravia after realizing its kept after the person whom she truly loves – I am ‘Sherlocked’.