Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Sherlock: "The Empty Hearse"

"There's a Hollywood villain role going downstairs?
No time, get the bungee rope!"
Yeah, I never got around to finishing my review of "The Reichenbach Fall." One word summary? Shit. The point at which Sherlock, one of the most staggeringly overrated programmes of recent years on television, collapsed into nothing more than a hybrid of cheap thriller and psycho-drama with all pretence of being a detective story abandoned, it was a tedious and disappointing piece of television most objectionable for its overuse of the show's insufferable portrayal of Moriarty. Two years later and Sherlock is back for another series of three ninety-minute instalments. What does this episode have to do? Firstly, it needs to explain how Holmes faked his death. Secondly, it needs to explore the ramifications of this for Holmes' friends and colleagues, especially Watson. Thirdly, it preferably needs to tell an interesting story of its own. "The Empty Hearse" wastes time on the first, traverses cliché and predictable routes for the second and is entirely perfunctory on the third. It's not nearly as objectionable of content as "The Blind Banker" or "A Scandal in Belgravia" but it's rather routine and hasn't toned down the appalling smugness as much as is really necessary.
"David Burke? Never heard of him."
To summarise the plot, Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch have spent the last two years filming "The Hobbit" (italics reserved for the books, adaptations only get quotation marks) and other Hollywood projects like the godawful "Star Trek Into Darkness", while Moffat and Gatiss have been writing shit episodes of New Who, and as a result it has conveniently taken Holmes two years to disassemble what remains of Moriarty's international crime network. Despite the typical punning title, "The Empty Hearse" owes little to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original tale of the Great Detective's resurrection, being reminiscent only in the fact that it involves Holmes' return and that the antagonist is named Moran. Holmes must negotiate his reappearance to Watson and solve a terrorist plot, after being rescued from Serbia by Mycroft in another lame spy spoof scene. This second element is utterly humdrum, making the episode feel like a knockoff of, simultaneously, the lamentable Skyfall and the over-simplified film adaptation at least of "V for Vendetta", featuring an explosive-laden tube train intended to blow up Parliament, this time at the demands of a "Lord Moran." Rather than being Moriarty's second in command, Moran here is a character-less seditionist apparently in the pocket of Pyongyang whose only purpose is to be observed suspiciously disappearing on some security footage and pushing a button in a hotel room. Now that I think about it, all the imagery of Parliament getting blown up and MPs vulnerable in session actually rather strongly evokes nothing less than the first of the Guy Ritche-directed Holmes films, so it's hardly fresh stuff. But this episode cares little about the plot, being more interested in observing how Watson would react to his friend's return.
"So you wanna play Boggle, or Super Mario Bros.?"
And for what it's worth, "The Empty Hearse" doesn't do too badly in exploring how one might react if one's best friend was revealed to have faked their own death and apparently everyone knew but you. We do get some fairly predictable material featuring Watson repeatedly attacking Holmes as they get kicked out of more and more down-market eating establishments. The problem is that Holmes never gives a good enough account of himself for why Watson, Mrs Hudson and Lestrade were left in the dark - interestingly, the "canonical" characters. Gatiss/Moffat inventions Molly, Holmes' parents and the "homeless network" (replacing the Baker Street Irregulars) were all clued up. Of course, so was Mycroft, much like the original tales. Once again we get perhaps more scenes featuring Sherlock and Mycroft than are strictly necessary, and isn't it hilarious to see them playing Operation when we thought it was chess. Before the end I was sure it was going to turn out that Molly had gotten engaged to Mycroft. I did like them showing Mycroft's own powers of deduction, something the show has to this point omitted. Holmes saving Watson from the as yet unresolved bonfire scenario was a good enough way of reconciling the two, I suppose, but I still think Holmes should have emphasised that he faked his death to save Watson's life, not just because he thought he'd let something slip. We also get a ghastly "I'm not gay!" moment from Watson which is even lazier than the constant Holmes/Watson gay jokes of series gone by. Perhaps the most pleasant part of the episode, for some reason, was Holmes having Molly along as his substitute Watson, although that too got muddled up in all sorts of boring romantic tripe about how she's moved on by getting engaged to a man who looks a lot like and dresses identically to Sherlodict Cumberholmes. As a general rule there's a bit too much comedy in the episode, especially involving cutaways between Holmes and Watson where they appear, purely for the sake of jokes, to be finishing each other's sentences in silly ways. It's the same as New Who, really - this is what happens when you get comedy writers to do the job of writers actually experienced in the field.
It's this or the Guy Ritchie ones. Choose your poison.
As for how Holmes faked his death, we get three explanations: one from Anderson involving masks, bungee cords and action heroics, one from a fangirl involving a deliberate and appropriately amusing pastiche of the homoerotic dreams of the fan-fiction brigade, and one from Holmes himself which Anderson doesn't believe. I suppose it's nice to see Anderson get his comeuppance for being so disagreeable in earlier series, as well as the explanation for why that girl screamed in "The Reichenbach Fall" but I can't help but feel that it's too much. I get the impression that Gatiss and Moffat are trying to poke fun at how no explanation they gave would ever satisfy all comers, but maybe because I'm such an utter contrarian (among other things featuring the letters C N and T in that order) I actually thought that Holmes' explanation was fine. Well, I had one quibble. Watson needed to see a body, but did they need an actual corpse? Couldn't anyone in a wig and overcoat have done? Anyway, it was fine with me, but I think it was overdone. As for performances, they're all fine, and I actually liked the way Holmes seemed to have abandoned some of the overemphasised traits from the last series. With the Watson moustache I actually found Martin Freeman very convincing. Put him in a bowler hat and Victorian clothes and he'd probably be spot on as a canonical Watson. Speaking of, it's somewhat disconcerting to see from the titles alone how steeped this show is in the atmosphere of British Imperialism which was so vital to Conan Doyle. If British culture from Thatcher's time has become increasingly steeped in imperialist nostalgia perhaps this modern update of Holmes isn't so surprising. Sherlock is still, essentially, a battler for Britain, who in this goes even further in interfering in the business of other countries, most of which are fetishised in a very Victorian way. In this, Holmes is involved in defending Parliament during a rather simplistically-described debate of an anti-terrorism bill which is only given the most offhand scrutiny in a background voiceover. I would argue that Moffat and Gatiss try to make Holmes seem relevant, which he inevitably cannot be outside the context of late nineteenth century Britain, by immersing the programme in generic post 9-11 Western xenophobic paranoia, emphasised by the utter banality and effortlessness of the "terrorist threat" potentially sponsored in this narrative by the current cliché bogeyman of North Korea - I suppose Iran would have been the only other possibility. As an equivalent of the atmosphere in Conan Doyle's time of British power being threatened by the United States ascendant in the West and Germany similarly in the East it's probably appropriate, but as such comes across to my mind as rather small-minded, politically conservative and borderline jingoistic - but the show's been like that since "The Blind Banker" at the very least.
"Get a good angle, these need to be splashed all
over tumblr by midnight tonight!"
"The Adventure of the Empty House" always had the benefit of being set in the age of Victorian values when overt emotions were reserved and private, so there was no great need to explore the ramifications of Holmes' apparent death and subsequent reappearance upon Watson in extravagant detail. Indeed having simply escaped Moriarty's clutches, rather than deliberately staging his own demise, the real Holmes was to a certain extent off the hook, having never really misled Watson in the first place. The good Doctor faints, Holmes apologises, and we get on with things. I would have been interested to see a Sherlock interpretation of Colonel Moran but sadly it was not to be. "The Empty Hearse," perhaps without choice, bites off a bit more than it can plausibly chew even within the relatively relaxed constraints of ninety minutes of television. The plot isn't interesting enough to keep the narrative in momentum and the whole "how did he do it" aspect is over embellished, especially since, as Watson himself points out, the more important question within the framework of this show, and the part that doesn't really get satisfactorily dealt with, is why. It's arguably one of the stronger of the show's amusingly small number of episodes, but given that "A Study in Pink" is really the only good one that's not exactly difficult. A bit less smugness would be appreciated too; the show is frustratingly tiresome in its enthusiasm for being ironic, post-modern and self aware to the extent that it becomes impossible to take seriously, as emphasised by the moment of Holmes putting on the deerstalker, a piece of inaccurate shorthand for the original Great Detective. I'm sure die hard fans of this show could convince themselves that anything was worth the wait but for my part more of an emphasis on a new plot would have been welcome. By all means resolve what came before, but it's not necessary to spend so much time on it just for the sake of humour and deflecting criticism. In fact it comes across as a tad insecure and defensive on the part of Gatiss and Moffat, although that's not really surprising behaviour. Setting up a new villain arc, seemingly featuring some adaptation of Charles Augustus Milverton, isn't quite enough to sell me on an episode that spends too much time resolving the one that came before.

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