Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: Sherlock

Directed by Paul McGuigan. Written by Mark Gatiss & Steven Moffat.
Seasons 1-3

The Holmes stories aren't rich or full of significance. The characters don't have that Dickensian ability to walk right off the page. The vocabulary is fine but workmanlike, without the bubbly perk of Woodhouse or the twisting of Joyce. Superficially, of course, the appeal is the plot. We like trying to figure out the mysteries. True enough the first time through, they're pretty absorbing, but why read, or watch, them again and again? Why remake them decade after decade?

Sherlock, of course. He's not the most fascinating of characters, though. His knowledge and activities are limited. He's not prone to passion and "has no vices," Watson tells us. How exciting. The appeal of Holmes, I think, is an attraction to his relentlessly logical reasoning and fantastic powers of perception.  We follow along and feel the thrill as Holmes reveals his astute observations to the mere mortals around him, from the flatfooted police and his capable-but-humble partner, Watson, to the criminals he's just outwitted. Even more, we like to fancy ourselves just as rational as Holmes.

If that is indeed the appeal of the famous detective, then the BBC's first three seasons of Sherlock deliver. Seldom has watching Holmes churn through facts, sifting the significant from the peripheral with superhuman speed, been so fun. Indeed, the driving forces of the show are the scenes of Holmes breathlessly narrating his conclusions to the mere mortals around him and we viewers, like poor Watson and Lestrade, simply get whisked along in Holmes' intellectual whirlwind. As we follow the keen perceptions of the self-declared "consulting detective," the camera zooms in on the minute objects of his inquiry. This not only emphasizes the superhuman degree of Holmes' powers, but balances with dynamic visuals the talky explanation and exposition which otherwise can grow tedious. It's more inventive, though, the way Sherlock handles the flip side of Holmes' insistent perspicacity: that' he's beyond bored when not stimulated by a tough case. In fact, here Holmes is in thrall to his senses, endlessly jonesing for his next kick that will only come from a near-uncrackable case. Cumberbatch's Holmes less the professional sleuth, more the boy genius. Less Bohemian, more curmudgeon.

Indeed, it's all Watson can do to stop Holmes from offending everyone in sight and he usually plays Holmes' buffer or gopher to the outside world. Watson's no fool though, and unlike previous incarnations of the solider-doctor-sidekick, he doesn't exist simply to be wrong and showcase Holmes' smarts. The first three seasons give Watson a meaningful arc as he moves from traumatized veteran to, well, Sherlock Holmes' sidekick. And what a pair, with the indefatigable Holmes striding off after some obscure clue and Watson scrabbling along after him. One lanky, the other short. One with the soldier's brevity and the other who's a plain old showoff. One indifferent to romance, the other unlucky. They're more than an Abbott and Costello, though. There's some substance to the duo, for we see Holmes move from a total indifference toward anyone's feelings, to a subdued respect for the plucky doctor, finally to caring for him as a a friend. These details aren't overplayed though, and we don't venture into buddy-cop territory.  Holmes is still irascible and Watson is always playing catch-up, but they're friends.

If Watson's the everyman and Holmes his boy genius, then Moriarty is the enfant terrible. Just as mad, just as brilliant as Holmes, the gawky, mousy Moriarty wants his complementary nemesis to come out and play. Their parallels aren't superficial, either. Where Holmes has buried his emotions and runs on the adrenaline of the case, Moriarty's rage fuels his plans. Holmes is the consulting detective, Moriarty the consulting criminal. They're both in it for themselves, though, and perversely each needs the mad, inverted brilliance of the other to satisfy his own mind's lust for challenge. The writers tried to throw in some bits about how Holmes isn't "really" on the "side of the angels," i.e. law and order, but it wasn't so persuasive. Perhaps the authors thought it a betrayal of Holmes' curmudgeonry to let him identify with any group, but he's not a psychopath. Eccentric misanthrope, yes. Murderer, no.

The six episodes of the first two seasons neatly thread these characters through some interesting variations on the Conan Doyle mysteries, which were updated just enough for my liking. Most of the updates are sensible reactions to the technology of today, whether it's genetic engineering or digital cryptography. At last, we don't have to pretend to be fooled by phosphorescent paint and forged signatures. This is also the first mainstream programming, in film or television, that really seemed at home in the digital world.  People talk about blogs and databases and what have you, without introducing them to the audience. As if that's not refreshing enough to satisfy my inner geek, finally some fine producer decided just to overly onto the tv screen the content of text messages and computer screens in the show: no more close ups of generic operating systems and characters reading their messages aloud. Finally, we and Holmes are on an adventure in the 21st century.

Each step of the way we're treated to a pitch-perfect score from David Arnold and Michael Price. With it's boomin bass line, The Game Is On superficially resembles Hans Zimmer's score to the Guy Richie  films, but the blend of plucked, bowed, and percussive instruments here is even more pleasing, a clever and complementary mix of interiority, drama, and good old fashioned adventure. Just like the show.

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