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”!

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