Saturday, January 7, 2012

"This episode was pretty much detective sex."

Yup. “Pretty much detective sex.” At least, that’s the way a friend described “A Scandal in Belgravia”, the first episode of the second series of Sherlock, when I lamented it was airing a full week before I thought it would. Yes, remembering air dates isn’t always my strong suit. I get scatterbrained. Shut up.  

Either way, having now seen the episode, I gotta say it’s a rather astute description. “Pretty much detective sex”. In a few words, yes, that’s more or less what it boils down to. But of course, the point of this blog is to give me the opportunity to not just stop at a few words when voicing and developing my opinion… so let’s see what we can add to that, shall we?

So, did the series two premiere meet with the high expectations set by the by and large extremely entertaining series one? Why, how very kind of you to ask! To give you my answer, yes, I would certainly say it did. For the full hour and a half I found myself glued to the screen. I felt engaged, thrilled and intrigued, I often laughed and I think I even applauded at one or two points (hey, don’t look at me like that, I get overly enthusiastic about stuff some times). It had everything that made the first season fun and more – but I realize I’m not being very specific with that, so let’s go through some of the episode’s more interesting elements one step at a time.

The great hope of the British nation. No, I don’t know why he refuses to wear pants. 

In my bit about the show’s previous season I remarked that the main thing that makes Sherlock a good time is generally the characters, and in keeping with that, the thing most people’re likely to be talking about with this series’ premiere is the introduction of the character of Miss Irene Adler. While I haven’t read “A Scandal in Bohemia” and thus don’t have much tabs on her original portrayal, I’m told she’s kind of like the Boba Fett of the original Holmes stories: someone who really isn’t in the actual canon all that much but is by fans nonetheless considered a pretty Big Deal™. Here she’s cast as a sort of con woman, a dominatrix who tricks her clients into providing her with incriminating photographs and information. Sherlock and Watson are sent after her by Sherlock’s brother Mycroft to recover a number of incriminating photos of a person of rather high social standing indeed, though it soon becomes clear that Miss Adler is safeguarding data much more volatile than simply a bunch of dirty pictures for her nefarious purposes. She’s quite convincingly played by up- and coming actress Lara Pulver, who portrays her with that particular combination of sexiness, confidence and an air of danger typical to the femme fatale archetype, obviously the characterization Moffat and company were shooting for. She quickly has the dynamic duo of Holmes and Watson running around in circles, proving a capable foil to Holmes’ genius and even seeming for a while to be able to inspire some sort of extra-professional interest in the usually extremely asexual detective.

Apparently there’ve been some complaints from the feminist camp that the portrayal of Irene Adler as a sort of sexual predator, a female character relying more on her charm and seductiveness than her wits to get by is a step backward, that there’re some misogynistic undertones to the whole affair. Honestly, I’m not really seeing it. The femme fatale is indeed a rather old archetype that’s certainly not always used to portray female characters at their most compassionate or likeable, but I say that in and on itself it’s much more of an empowering than a demeaning way to portray women. Irene’s method of controlling people through her sexual prowess is, lest we forget, spearheaded and supplanted by her intelligence rather than some sort of basic instinct. The fact that (mild spoiler warning) Jim Moriarty turns out to’ve masterminded part of the plot by which she outwits the Holmes brothers might have something to do with the complaints, but I say that nonetheless she comes off as anything but dumb and helpless. Moreover, she’s a much more three-dimensional character than that. Despite her tough as nails exterior she does in the end show a certain amount of emotion and vulnerability, which some might say paints her as a weak little girl but in my opinion rather helps flesh her out as a person. And guys, let’s not forget we’re talking a piece of genre fiction here. This is pop culture entertainment, it’s not particularly serious business. If some of the aspects of her portrayal were a bit questionable I think it can be excused. Let’s not go overboard, it’s not like the Holmes brothers told her to get her ass in the kitchen and she obligingly scuttled off to make them a sandwich. I think she’s a rather strong and interesting character, and I wouldn’t mind seeing her make a second appearance if possible.

Then again, maybe the reason she’s getting all this attention is simply because she spent about ten minutes of the episode walking around butt-nekid. Or am I the only one who took special note of that? 

“A Scandal in Belgravia” sounds fine, but I have an alternative title: “Fanservice: The Episode”.

Well, whichever way you slice it, it’s pretty clear ze sexy plays a pretty big thematic role in this episode, if you’ll forgive me a bit more analytical wanking (and I just realised I might’ve done well to choose another verb there than wank). Of course as we’ve seen most of it revolves around Irene Adler, who I’ve already said does seem to stir some sort of attraction in Cumberbatch’s extremely asexual Sherlock. Of course what exactly it is he sees in her is anyone’s guess, for it being any real sort of sexual attraction still seems rather unlikely: if it’s there, the rather stoic Sherlock certainly isn’t betraying any of it. Still, there is a clear amount of tension in the air whenever the two are in the same frame. Lara Pulver and Benedict Cumberbatch have some great acting chemistry together, really making you believe that whatever is going on here, there certainly is something between these two people – which, incidentally, twice leads John Watson to butt in with a demure yet annoyed “don’t forget I’m in the room as well, guys” type of reply, two great little moments from Martin Freeman. Likely Sherlock simply holds some sort of intellectual respect for this woman who seems to be just barely outwitting him at every turn. After all, as Irene says to Sherlock, “smart is the new sexy”, and if that is so then both of them certainly have that in spades.

And while we’re on the subject of sexy, at this point I should probably mention the proverbial pink elephant in the room (Jesus, Buddha, SpongeBob, forgive me for that horrible turn of phrase), especially since I glossed over it in my remarks on last season. I’m talking of course about the John and Sherlock bromance, the bromance to end all bromances. The whole heterosexual life partners thing is rather ubiquitous if we’re talking a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, but here it's often really blatant: hell, Martin Freeman himself describes Sherlock as, and I quote, “the gayest story in the history of television”. If that’s not really your sort of thing I’d just advise you to ignore it, though I give in this case it could be kind of tricky: but come on children, this is the twenty-second century we’re living in (or is it the twenty-fifth? I lose count so easily these days). Either way it doesn’t bother me. At times I actually find it kind of endearing, and Sherlock tends to lay it on so thick that it’s often just completely hilarious. Irene Adler certainly seems to believe the two to be a couple, which of course prompts a fervent denial from Watson. And indeed, dear John had just earlier been reassured by his girl that he’s really a sweet boyfriend… to Sherlock that is, after which she promptly dumped Watson’s ass, so make of that what you will.

“Pretty much detective sex”, indeed. 

Whoops, my bad. These two clearly aren’t into each other at all. 

But look at me talking about characters and sexuality and bromance and all that sorta thing when I’ve barely discussed the episode’s plot in any sort of detail! Well, to be honest I might’ve been dancing around the issue, because this is where the episode at times falls a tiny bit flat. The situation I described earlier, in which Holmes and Watson are sent after Irene Adler to recover a number of incriminating photographs, pretty much kicks off the main plot of the episode. This soon develops into something a tad more complicated, in which the earlier so confident and in control Miss Adler ends up on the run, because some of the information to which she is privy is key to preventing a terrorist attack on British soil, or to simulating such an attack, or to fooling the terrorists which are planning said attack, or… something. Maybe I’m just dim-witted or wasn’t paying good enough attention all the way through, but I did feel that near the end of the episode things ended up getting a wee bit convoluted. Luckily it doesn’t end up being much of a problem, as this is a series very much about the characters and the way they interact, with the case-related happenings often simply functioning to get people from point A to point B. If you’re not entirely sure what part of the mystery we’re at, you can always wait for Sherlock to make another motor mouth deduction speech to pinpoint the moment things’re all solved and done with.

And hey, who cares about the plot being somewhat on the vague and convoluted side when there’s so many great moments in the episode, so many fun little discoveries to be made? Both of our leads are at the top of their game, turning in a smashing performance with lots of little nuances and subtleties. I’ll have to give another spoiler warning here, but near the end of the episode there’s a fantastic scene where John comes into Sherlock’s study having been given the information that Irene Adler has been executed, yet telling Sherlock she has moved to America and taken on a false identity, making it unlikely he’ll ever see her again. Sherlock however sees through the act, and as he holds out his hand, asking for her cellphone as a memorandum, he seems unusually shaken. His hand trembles and his voice momentarily yet noticeably cracks when requesting the phone, in a manner that is uncharacteristic for the usually aloof Sherlock yet so subtle and seemingly unintentional that it can't be anything but genuine. Soon afterwards, however, we find out he knew that she’s not dead at all, and that he was just playing along: it wasn’t Benedict Cumberbatch, but Sherlock Holmes who was acting in that situation! 
To conceal his face, Sherlock dons a cap with bow amusingly similar to Holmes' classic headgear. 
Indeed, watching the episode it becomes immediately clear that we have Stevan Moffat writing the script, because as with the previous Doctor Who Christmas special barely five minutes ever go by without a fantastic little character moment and at least one excellently quotable line. Probably my favourite one of these is when a CIA agent breaks into Sherlock’s apartment and holds his landlady, a terrified Mrs. Hudson, hostage. The man threatens to blow her brains out unless Sherlock cooperates and hands over Irene Adler’s stolen data, but Sherlock promptly kicks the shit out of him and drops him out of the second story window. When Watson declares Mrs. Hudson to be in shock and recommends her a short vacation, we find out she was in cahoots with Sherlock and was simply playing scared. “Mrs. Hudson, leave Baker Street?”, Sherlock exclaims bombastically: “England would fall!” 

On a cinematographical level (sorry if I’m being a snob by using that word all the time, can't let that quick course in film analysis go to waste I guess) there're once again some fun little things to be found in this episode. The parallel montage of Holmes and Irene Adler getting ready to meet each other comes to mind as being especially noticeable. First we have shots of Sherlock looking through a pile of photographs of Irene in full dominatrix gear interchanged with shots of Irene looking at photo’s of Sherlock wearing nothing more than a bed sheet, taken when he was suddenly picked up at his house against his well to go see Mycroft. Then we have shots of Irene seemingly busy picking out a dress interchanged with shots of Sherlock trying on different blazers and dress shirts. And finally we have shots of Irene applying makeup and lipstick interchanged with shots of Holmes and Watson roughing each other up in an alleyway (no, not like that) to make it appear as if Sherlock just got mugged as part of their ploy to get into her house. This seems to be emphasizing there being some sort of similarity, some sort of match between Irene and Sherlock before the two even meet, as if the two are simply meant to be friendly rivals of each other. I also liked the scenes in which Sherlock is giving Irene a lesson in deductive reasoning (or showing off his lightning-speed investigative skills to her, more likely) in which the two are suddenly transported to the scene of an unsolved crime, with Sherlock showing Miss Adler the various facets of the mystery as time stands still all around them. Perhaps a representation of Sherlock’s vivid way of describing the scene to her? Clever stuff at any rate, and quite effective.

And this doesn’t really have much to do with anything, but did anyone catch the location cameo of the Battersea Power Station, made famous by the cover for Pink Floyd’s Animals? Because I know I certainly did!

Useless trivia like this is one of the advantages of being a classic rock fan. Or something.

As if you couldn't have deduced it from all of the above (see what I did there?), let me tell you in no uncertain terms that "A Scandal in Belgravia" is a fantastic piece of television, carrying on the legacy of Sherlock's first series without missing a beat. I can only hope that the next two episodes, sadly not written by Steven Moffat (I know Mark Gattis and Steve Thompson're capable writers, but the previous season's Moffat episode was probably the best of the bunch) can hold to the same high standard of quality. I’m not sure if I’ll be blogging about both upcoming episodes separately or if I’ll just look back on the series as a whole some time after it finishes airing - that kind of depends on my schedule and if I find myself motivated to write or not. What is certain though is that I will be watching, and I hope you will too!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Is this the Holmes you're looking for?

While we’re merely a scant few days into the new year, we’ve already reached one of my most anticipated television moments of 2012. No, I’m not talking about the first episode of the Napoleon Dynamite cartoon. What kind of schlub do you think I am? That’s not airing until January 15th! I’m not an idiot, I have the ability to remember air dates! 
No, I’m talking about the series two premiere for the BBC’s Sherlock, which aired the previous Sunday on New Year’s Day. And when I said just now that I have no problem remembering air dates I was of course lying, because said episode turned out to be on about a full week before I actually thought it'd be.
I’d been planning to blog about the new episode in some amount of detail and still plan to do so. However because I thought I had an extra week before it aired I was thinking of rewatching the first series somewhere along the line beforehand so I could give you a detailed opinion on Sherlock so far before going into series the second - but by now it’s clear I’m not gonna have time to go through the whole thing again any time soon. Still I wanted to at least give something of a general overview of the show and its merits for the uninitiated, so I started typing up some remarks to kick off my bit about the series two opener. That quickly ended up becoming a tad lengthy for a mere introduction though, so to prevent things from getting cluttered I figured I might as well develop it into a short separate entry. If you already know what’s going on, feel free to skip this one and wait until I post something about the new episode. 
The premise of Sherlock can quite easily be summed up in a small number of words. As I said in my bit about the Hobbit trailer, it’s basically a reimagining of sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective classic set in modern times. This brings with it all the cultural and technological trappings of our beloved period of history. Big international corporations and crime syndicates, secret services such as the CIA, and of course the world-wide web (this Holmes refers to Watson as his blogger rather than his Boswell). Oh, and especially cell phones, because hoo boy, does this show love itself some cell phones.

Pictured: a man and his mobile. A lovely couple.

Anyone who’s seen the show’s first series is likely to agree that the main reason it was so much fun was its main characters and the actors who portrayed them. Steven Moffat, nefarious mastermind behind the show along with Mark Gattis, obviously has an eye for talent. I’ve already said that his tenure on Who brought in one of my favourite actors so far to portray the Doctor, and with Sherlock he’s struck gold again. Benedict Timothy Carlton Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the titular Sherlock (haha, I said tit agai– alright, fine, I’ll quit that now) is a smashing good time – for this version of the great detective is pretty much a complete and utter jackass. This Sherlock Holmes is aloof, arrogant and socially withdrawn, a man who lives entirely inside his own head, barely bothering to interact with people unless he can prove to them his intellectual superiority. Cumberbatch’s performance is spectacularly cold and rough-edged. He never becomes unlikeable, however: because as they say (and if they don't, I guess I just coined a phrase), snark sells, and Sherlock's got it in spades. Martin Freeman’s take on John Watson is equally refreshing, a mild-mannered, soft-spoken little man with hidden depths that contain a surprising amount of intelligence and bravery. He’s the perfect counterweight to Sherlock, not as quick-witted as his friend but a lot more down to earth and practical, often acting as his link to the outside world and his social compass.
In this, Sherlock actually stays very true to the roots of the characters in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. Instead of the Victorian gentleman Holmes tends to be portrayed as, the original Sherlock was usually a snobbish, apathetic shut-in who could only really function in the outside world when either presented with a case or drugged off his ass on cocaine. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock fits this description to a tee (well, not the drugged up bit, though he is often seen applying fucktons of nicotine patches to kick his smoking addiction). Similarly, Doyle’s Watson wasn’t the dim-witted oaf he usually is in modern adaptations but a clever and resourceful army vet, even something of a ladykiller. While not quite as rough-edged as the original, Freeman’s Watson is certainly a very strong character, often quite helpful to his friend rather than just a bumbling counterpoint to his genius. I don’t think any modern reimagining has really gone for this angle except Guy Ritchie’s Holmes film franchise, and if I’d have to choose between the two I’d certainly go for the BBC’s adaptation. Martin Freeman’s Watson is a lot more multi-faceted than Jude Law’s version, who is a real outright badass but little more than that. And as much as I like Robert Downey Jr.’s Holmes he just doesn’t quite have the same degree of smug confidence as Benedict Cumberbatch, who is pretty much a complete magnificent bastard all the way through.

Presented for your approval: one hardass motherfucker.

Indeed, though being set in modern times, the entire production seems to be infused with the desire to do justice to the essence of Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation. Steven Moffat’s words at least imply a good understanding of the source material: "Conan Doyle's stories were never about frock coats and gas light; they're about brilliant detection, dreadful villains and blood-curdling crimes – and frankly, to hell with the crinoline. Other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures, and that's what matters." There are a lot of little references to the original stories scattered about the show’s episodes, from plot structures to quotes to obscure character names to the occasional extremely tiny detail. What? You want examples? Go check TV Tropes or Wikipedia, I’m not going to do all your busywork for you. I don’t get paid for this!

One thing I feel I should mention is that the show is often quite cleverly filmed with good attention to lighting, angles and shot composition. It’s refreshing to see a modern TV production spend a good amount of care on its cinematography. The fun little cinematographical qualities of course mostly come into play when our protagonist is employing his patented Sherlock Scan™: in such situations a combination of words, graphs and numbers flashing across the screen and rapid-fire editing is usually employed to emphasize the speed at which Sherlock’s brain goes through the ubiquitous process of deduction. The show does also use its modern setting as an excuse to have some more fun with cinematography, as the text contained in things like emails, browser screens and especially text messages often pops up in the frame in amusing little ways to forego the neccesity to include constant shots of computer and telephone screens. A bit of a cheesy little trick but it actually works quite well, and quickly becomes one of the show’s staple visual techniques.

Indeed, this is a show that puts a lot of attention into tiny little details, showing that a lot of care and labour goes into every episode. Beyond the multitude of references to classic Holmes stories there’s a lot of fun little Easter eggs lying around for the attentive viewer to discover. One that I’ll mention is a scene at the end of the third episode, in which Watson is taken hostage by a villain, shoved into a coat rigged with explosives and forced to repeat lines to Sherlock dictated to him via a wire. While he obediently parrots the lines given to him to his baffled friend (to, you know, avoid having both of them ending up smeared across the walls, because that wouldn’t be much of a satisfactory season finale), one who looks closely will see that he is also furiously blinking his eyes at Sherlock while talking. No, he’s not flirting with him (though I wouldn’t fault you for thinking that, but more on that next time) – he’s actually spelling out a distress call. Three quick blinks, then three slow blinks, then another three quick. That’s Morse Code, buddy. S.O.S. If that ain't a fun little inclusion I don’t know what is.

Seriously, if you've seen it, go watch that scene again. I’m not kidding.

Up to this point the best modern adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes character has probably been doctor House (that’s right, I said House – search your feelings, you know it to be true) but if the BBC's Sherlock isn’t a strong contender, then shit, I don’t really know what is. Can it keep up the high standard of quality set by the first series? Find out in a few hours (or maybe tomorrow, or Sunday), as I give you my opinion on the opening episode for series two, “A Scandal in Belgravia”!