What? Not topical, you say? Someone hasn’t been watching their BBC America/PBS/Netflix Instant. Do I have to do everything? Apparently so.
I jest, I jest. Let me say at the outset that I’m not a big TV person — Mad Men etc. bores the hell out of me — but I don’t really consider anything involving Sherlock Holmes television. It’s something between TV and the movies; let’s call it melevision. Anyways, I was completely, 100% against the Sherlock series with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman up until about a week ago. Although I am sometimes against things simply because they’re popular (this pisses off my friend Roxane to no end, which I find hilarious), in the case of Sherlock I actually had a reason. I saw what I thought was the first episode (turns out it was the third) and thought it was effing stupid. I must have been in a bad mood that day, but what set me off was the update. Holmes with a cell phone? A computer? GPS? Nicotine patches?! No, no, no. Sherlock uses his mind, not Wikipedia. He smokes a pipe and does designer drugs. How could you, Stephen Moffat? How could you?
That was then. To prove that I am capable of changing my mind (I am too, Roxy!) I now admit that I was (somewhat) wrong. Sherlock is very, very clever. Benedict Cumberbatch, besides possessing the greatest name since Engelbert Humperdinck (and he didn’t even have to make his up), is a superb 21st Century Sherlock. He’s just this side of sociopathic. It never occurred to me that Sherlock Holmes had a borderline personality disorder, but it’s an interesting conceit. Martin Freeman plays a very likable and intelligent Watson. He’s not an idiot a la Nigel Bruce; just a regular guy paired with a highly irregular friend. I like the ‘are they gay?’ jokes, which for anyone who has read the original stories is a clever little dig. Cumberbatch is also all kinds of adorable, so I’m all for that one. The stories are clever updates (A Study in Pink! A Scandal in Belgravia! HA!) and thankfully do not depend too much on modern day technology. Sherlock still sits around and thinks and gives Watson a hard time. So far, so good.
On the other hand: all of those problems I identified on the initial viewing were also still there. I still don’t like the idea of Sherlock Holmes playing with GPS, computers and nicotine patches, but I can get past that. What continues to bug me is how self-satisfied the series appears. A lot of it smacks as just a little too clever, as though the producers are saying ‘Do you see what we did there?! Do you?! You thought he’d smoke a pipe but that’s not 21st Century so he has NICOTINE PATCHES! God, we’re amazing. Don’t you think we’re amazing?’ And so forth. I’m not certain whether I was supposed to be impressed by Sherlock’s reasoning skills, but having read all of the original stories (and quite a few of the pastiches and arcana), I was pretty much able to figure out the first three episodes without too much brain work. Because I’m brilliant, obviously, but also because anyone with a familiarity with the stories would probably recognize the plots.
But all right: Sherlock Holmes was never really about the mysteries per se. Sherlock Holmes was about the characters, the fun of seeing Conan Doyle’s calculating machine best everybody, including the cops. Cumberbatch et al do give us that: idiot Scotland Yard inspectors, clever amateurs, a coroner or two, and the infallible Sherlock. What’s more, as Indiewire (in a slightly overzealous article) pointed out, Cumberbatch’s portrayal gives us a more human super-detective than perhaps Rathbone or Richard Roxburgh’s questionably manic Sherlock. But again, I think we might be overdoing it in the praise department. Turning Holmes into a borderline sociopath is not quite what Conan Doyle had in mind. This is a TV show and does not have to follow the original stories, so fair enough. But again it feeds into what irks me about the show: it smacks of far too much self-satisfaction. We’ve psychoanalyzed the character! Aren’t you proud of us? He’s socially inept! Perhaps he’s autistic! Imagine that: Sherlock Holmes is autistic! Who knows?! We’re clever! You see, though, if you trusted your audience, you wouldn’t need to be so clever. You wouldn’t need to explain Holmes in psychological terms. You could just let the character do the work.
Holmes – says popular commentary – is the most portrayed fictional character in cinema: Clive Brook, Basil Rathbone, Ronald Howard Christopher Plummer, Richard Roxburgh, Robert Stephens, Peter Cushing, Jeremy Brett, Robert Downey Jr, Rupert Everett, James D’Arcy, Christopher Lee … the list goes on. The definitive Holmes usually alternates between Rathbone – he basically created the deer-stalker wearing, pipe-smoking, holier-than-thou Sherlock – and Brett. Brett is my personal favorite Sherlock; his performance balances the human with the ‘calculating machine’. He’s not only the most loyal to the original stories, he gives Holmes a heart, in his exchanges with Watson, with his clients, the Baker Street Irregulars, and his beloved elder brother. Again, I wonder where the heart of Sherlock lies, because it certainly does not lie with Sherlock. Cumberbatch has a corner on the cruelty of Holmes; but what the series fails to do is provide him with a heart. He’s clever, but he’s not very nice.
We all take very personally the changing faces of our favorite characters. Who’s the best James Bond? The best Mr. Darcy? The best Batman? (The answers, by the way, are Sean Connery, Colin Firth and Michael Keaton). Sherlock Holmes has had dozens of faces, but we have to remember that all those famous phrases and costuming choices were once new. Just because Cumberbatch doesn’t wear a deer-stalker does not mean that he’s innovative. I would be far more impressed if he managed to transcend the deerstalker and pipe while maintaining them as a part of the character. I am still unconvinced and they’re going to have to do a lot better than Irene Adler = dominatrix to convince me. So, no, my Sherlock is not Benedict Cumberbatch. But, given time, he could be.