February 13

The Problem with Sherlock (Holmes)

Since the end of the BBC’s season 3 of Sherlock, the blogosphere’s been buzzing like angry bees from one of Holmes’s hives. “Too sentimental!” “Too unrealistic!” “Sherlock’s gone soft!” “High-functioning sociopath we can deal with, but murderer?!”

True, Mom and Dad Holmes may have overstayed their welcome in season 3. Although Mr. and Mrs. Cumberbatch were adorable and quite good, perhaps Sherlock should’ve shooed them out of the season altogether when he shooed them out of 221B Baker Street. “Delayed action stabbing?” A super-fine blade slipped through a heavy-duty, military-grade, wool uniform? Stretching our credulity a bit. And so much sweetness this season with the addition Mary, the precocious little Archie in “The Sign of Three,” Christmas at the Holmes’ house. Only to have the sweetness snatched away to be replaced by the unexpected bitterness of a hero-turned-killer?! What’s going on?!

Fellow Sherlock fans, I beseech you to keep calm.

Nothing that happened this season is out of step with the rest of this magnificent series. Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss are staying true to the spirit of Arthur Conan Doyle and sticking with the paradigm that has made this show the closest representation of Doyle’s books ever brought to screen.

The problem of all screen adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories is one of perspective. In the novels and short stories, we perceive Holmes through the eyes and voice of John Watson. Most of the work is in the first person, with Watson playing narrator. It is brilliantly done. Without Watson as the reader’s intermediary, Sherlock Holmes would never have become the icon he is today. To his contemporary audience, Holmes would’ve been insufferable. Rude, self-absorbed, impatient, monomaniacal, at turns lazy and crazed, Holmes would hardly have appealed to most Victorians on his own.

That’s where Watson comes in. The Dr. John Watson of the books (and happily, Martin Freeman’s John Watson) saves us from being subjected to Holmes directly. Smart, brave, loyal, adventurous, Watson represents the kind of man Victorian Britons aspired to be. He’s a successful doctor and a decorated military veteran. In short, he’s a good man. Dr. Watson is admirable, and he admires Sherlock Holmes. We hear only those things about Holmes that Watson finds fascinating, and we hear those things in Watson’s voice. We see Holmes through Watson’s lens, somewhat clouded by amazement, confusion and, let’s face it, some hero-worship. But it works beautifully, and the result has been 130 years of Sherlock Holmes, flourishing and adapting to new audiences, new settings, and new media.

Which brings us to Sherlock.

Like all other screen adaptations, Sherlock has had to deal with the problem of perspective. Unlike a book, in which the narrator is responsible for what the reader sees and hears, on film, the audience gets a direct feed. Watson is still there with us, but he’s no longer standing between Holmes and us. He’s one of us, an observer; he’s lost his ability to protect Holmes for our prying eyes.

Admirably, Sherlock has not resorted to the merely 7% effective solution so many other adaptations have taken. To soften Holmes, many productions turn Watson into comic relief; he becomes a chubby, walrus-mustachioed clown. (Moffatt and Gatiss had some fun with that convention this season, giving Freeman a much-maligned and short-lived mustache worthy of Nigel Bruce.) But this tactic is unfair to Watson, Holmes, and Doyle. Watson is not a fool; he’s a doctor. He’s not clumsy or oblivious; he was a soldier. What’s more, Holmes would not suffer a fool. He has very little patience for stupid people (or normal people!), so it would be incongruous for him to want a silly man as a companion. Doyle never wrote foolishness into Watson’s character. Any comedy in the stories usually comes from Holmes’s snide remarks about silly people around them.

A few productions, most recently, those with Robert Downey Jr., have tried a different strategy – turning Holmes into comic relief himself.  Downey hams it up, using his big, brown eyes to great effect. And the movies use quite a bit of physical humor to keep Holmes from intimidating the audience too much. Of course, adding some sexual innuendo in the form of Irene Adler keeps things light as well.

Sherlock has used the Irene Adler trick too, but one of the things I love about this series is its Watson. Martin Freeman’s doctor is as close to Doyle’s doctor as I have ever seen. The character is brilliantly written and acted.

And therein lies a problem.

Without a foolish Watson, Sherlock’s Holmes is intimidating, awkward, bipolar, manipulative, even vicious. At times, Cumberbatch’s spot-on performance can be difficult for even modern TV audiences to watch. Many bloggers remarked on the painful awkwardness of “The Sign of Three,” with Holmes’s awful, rambling best man speech. Well. Yes. Of course, it was. It would be.

Without turning Watson into a buffoon, Gatiss and Moffatt have used a number of foils to tone down Sherlock’s hard edges. Irene Adler, of course, cleverly represented as a female Holmes. James Moriarty gave us a truly evil Holmes. Mycroft is “the ice man” version of Holmes. Magnusson was the amoral capitalist version of Holmes. These foils have worked well, helping the audience realize that, yes, Holmes may be a high-functioning sociopath, but by comparison with Mycroft, Moriarty and Magnusson, he’s a swell guy.

Season 3 was no less true to the formula Gatiss and Moffatt have developed to stay faithful to Doyle’s vision: Cumberbatch’s Holmes is a horribly abrasive genius; Freeman’s Watson is smart and solid. Foils were used to make Holmes appealing by comparison. Knowing their hero had to kill Magnusson at the end of the season, Gatiss and Moffatt may have overbalanced a little, but not much. Holmes’ execution of the villain is not that big a shocker. Magnusson, like Milverton in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton,” had to die. In Doyle’s story, Holmes watches the villain’s murder, does nothing to stop it, and prevents Watson from turning in the killer. To actually pull the trigger is not much of a stretch. So all the cute and sweet this season perhaps wasn’t necessary for modern audiences, but it was certainly true to the formula.

Even the “delayed action stabbing” is not so bad when you remember how faithful Gatiss and Moffatt are to Doyle. Yes, such a method of killing someone is unrealistic. But then, Doyle’s stories are not always steeped in real science either. Phrenology, anyone?

For those Sherlock fans who are also Sherlock Holmes fans, this season was not so problematic perhaps as for those who see the show in its own self-contained bubble. Still, those who are concerned that the show is devolving should take solace. It is being quite true to a successful formula, and it is still one of the best things on television.

Fans of the books, however, may be starting to fear that, at the rate the show is burning through Doyle’s storylines, can it really last much longer?


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Posted February 13, 2014 by jpmahoney49 in category Academic Intellectual Erudition, Current Events, Popular Culture