Thursday, March 13, 2014

Sherlock is Overrated

"Nothing ever happens to me, because we're
too busy making jokes and crying."
As one of the few people on the internet to think that Sherlock is highly overrated at best and a big bag of shit at worst, I feel the need to express this sentiment in a few succinct paragraphs for the sake of any fellow travellers out there who might be wondering what mass delusion the television viewing public falls under when the scowling face of Benedict Cumberbatch swims onto our screens for three weeks every two years. But of course that's just my opinion. I don't give a shit if you like Sherlock or not. Fair play to you if you do. Sometimes I wonder, would it be nice to be as easily entertained as so many people seemingly are? Then I think, no, I'd rather think stuff was shit than enjoy stuff that's shit and think it's not shit. Not that I'm saying Sherlock is objectively shit, I just don't like it. My point is, I'd rather have my own tastes than someone else's because I feel like it makes actually enjoying things all the sweeter. I feel like being uncritical and liking every other show, film and book I encountered, probably because I'd fallen into a marketing trap of manipulated expectations, would be like having sweets for every meal. It'd take the zest out of life, eliminating all those other flavours that make up a tasty meal, and you'd run the risk of getting entertainment diabetes. I sometimes see people who can't handle criticism of what they like going "Why would you be miserable and not enjoy things when you could be happy?" Well, for a start, I believe we don't choose our own emotions. Sartre claimed that we do, but that's bullshit. I believe we do have a measure of conscious control over our emotions, but it's more complex than that. Secondly, what would be the use of being happy all the time? I'm not saying it'd be great to be in constant mortal terror, to be abused or to suffer any kind of horrible ill treatment that people even in "Western civilisation" (oxymoron fnar fnar) suffer every day, but that being happy all the time is just a bland, shallow existence like the World State in Huxley. What kind of life would that be? Maybe a life of promiscuity and drugs appeals to you, but it doesn't appeal to intellectually masochist stuffed shirts like myself. Anyway, let's get onto my summary of the problems with Sherlock. I have five main categories.

Just pull the trigger and then we never have to see
the New Who Master's stupider little brother again.
1. It's imbalanced
Sherlock is too concerned with character at the expense of plot. In Series 3 in particular, a full two of the episodes were more about character drama than about crime-solving. I've seen people say "Sherlock is a detective show about the detective, not about the detection." The implication is that you can throw on a Jonathan Creek or Castle or something if what you primarily care about is fanciful detective cases with surprising twists and astounding feats of deduction. But isn't the whole point of Sherlock Holmes that he's the man that people call in when they themselves (or the police) are utterly baffled and they need a particular genius for investigation? It seems like every other instalment of Sherlock's pitifully small number of episodes is more concerned with one of the following questions: Despite being a bit weird, is Sherlock Holmes a relatable character? Or, What is the nature of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson's relationship? And you know what the answer is, every time? In the former it's "Yes, he definitely has a human side to him even if he doesn't fit society's arbitrary rules" and in the latter is "They're very good friends." They've made their point. Do they have to make it again every two years? Do they think we've forgotten or something? Of course the real answer is the viewing public laps up "human drama" at the expense of everything else. "Human drama" is fine when it's part of a balanced diet of exploring other issues in our society. Making a show about a genius detective and then purely focusing on the human drama element isn't exactly making the most of the opportunity at hand. This leads me to my second point.

2. It wastes time
"I'mmm going to say something in a looong, drawn out manner
to increase my limited sssscreeeentime."
As of my writing this there are precisely nine episodes of Sherlock in existence which have been made over the last five years. Even by the standards of British television, that's not many. Sure, each episode is ninety minutes in length, but that's hardly out of the ordinary for a lot of British crime dramas. So let's put ourselves in the place of Mr Steven Moffat and Mr Mark Gatiss. You've got the job writing a modernised TV adaptation of one of Western popular culture's most famous and significant texts. You've got three ninety minute episodes to work with, and your two leads are fairly hot property who are in and out of Hollywood on a regular basis. What are you going to do? Are you going to write a bunch of filler, set pieces, pointless comedy scenes and angsty melodrama, or are you going to crack out a script that's like a well-crafted wristwatch, precise and necessary in every detail? But then the realisation crashes down on you that you're actually a sitcom writer accustomed to producing thirty minutes of silly characters making knob gags and insulting each other, and so you realise you'd better plump for the former option, writing the only thing you know that isn't sitcom scripting, the thing that's given you attention at the BBC outside the world of comedy: writing Russell T Davies brand Doctor Who. That's all Sherlock is, really, except instead of the Doctor it's Benedict Cumberbatch and instead of some woman who wants to sleep with the Doctor it's Martin Freeman, and so people crack loads of gay jokes which is precisely what would happen in New Who if the Doctor ever travelled only with a male companion. Consider the opening of "The Sign of Three" which features "Holmes" interrupting a high-stakes arrest just to get advice for his best man speech, or those bits in "A Scandal in Belgravia" he's walking around Buckingham Palace with no gear on. What's the point of all this dead air? This was exemplified in "The Empty Hearse" when they offer multiple explanations for Holmes' survival, but made clear as early as "The Blind Banker" where they go to that magic show. Then again, that episode was just racist. My point is that the episodes are flabby, and the writing tries to tie everything into the half-hearted plots using a few glib remarks from Benedict Cumberbatch at the end to make it seem like it wasn't all a complete waste of time.

Wall-running in the Sherlock video game.
"Based on something we imagined Conan Doyle
might have imagined if he'd lived today, maybe."

3. It's self-obsessed
You know that bit in "The Empty Hearse" when Holmes gets all excited about putting his trademark jacket back on? That's exactly the problem I want to explore in this point. Why is this show so in love with itself? It's like the bit where Watson says something about Holmes' "cheekbones", which is just pointless self-referential nonsense basically involving them all saying "this show is popular and successful, we're so brilliant." Maybe if it was justified, but it isn't, because Sherlock is shit! But that's just my opinion. My chief issue is how utterly unsubtle they are about everything, as if the writers are saying "look here, didn't we write something clever." It's like Moriarty going on about how he and Holmes are so unusual, or Holmes describing himself as a "high functioning sociopath" or Holmes, Watson and "Mary Morstan" having a big argument about Watson's preference in friends. The show is constantly yelling from the rooftops that it's done something unusual, that it's drawn up these unconventional and edgy characters, completely overlooking the fact that this is just taken from stuff written by a Victorian gentleman over a hundred years ago. In the same way the show is incredibly smug about the lip service it pays to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original work, through puns on original story titles and Benedict Cumberbatch slapping a deerstalker onto his curly-haired bonce. This is a show that's so self aware that we can't possibly be expected to take it seriously. When Holmes appeared to make the leap in "The Reichenbach Fall" we know he isn't going to be dead because, as Gatiss and Moffat themselves said, part of the Sherlock Holmes story is that he seemingly died and later returned. This is a show that doesn't believe it has to try because it can get by on reputation alone, and that's what makes its writing and characterisation so frustrating.

4. It's exploitative
"I need to get naked for no real reason?
Oh right, forgot Steven wrote this one."
As I discussed in my review of "The Empty Hearse" the original Sherlock Holmes narratives were written primarily in the Victorian Age where strong emotions were usually not the business of everyday people apart perhaps from fainting women in rooms full of settees. Modern-day Sherlock, however, is constantly being "emotional", which is to say twee, mawkish, sentimental and melodramatic. There are regular shots of characters staring into middle distance, and moody music playing in the background. It's a cheap trick to keep people engaged by making them cry or feel sad or what have you. It's the most trivial form of storytelling imaginable, manipulating your audience's emotional gullibility to get them invested in the show at the expense of a sound or consistent plot. A good example would be Holmes' big freak out at Watson in "The Hounds of Baskerville" when he goes on about how he doesn't have any friends. But we know of course that they're going to kiss and make up at the end, and of course it's all pointlessly subverted when Holmes traps Watson in the lab with the fear gas just to be a dick. This is a show that doesn't care about actually doing its job as long as it gets its viewers sobbing into their hankies or laughing so hard that they need to post quotes about it on social media. Emotionality is not and never has been the heart and soul of nor the entire purpose and basis of drama, and it's the domain of trash like soap operas. This is not a show that cares remotely about exploring how the issues surrounding "Sherlock Holmes" might fit into a modern context, and this leads me onto my fifth and final point.

"You know what's really going to fit into our edgy modern-day Holmes?
A guy who looks like he's out of Disney's Aladdin wielding a scimitar."
5. It's irrelevant
You know when it made any kind of sense beyond a commercial one to write a series of novels and short stories about two middle-class white dudes who fight crime in London? In the 1890s, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing "The Adventures" and "The Memoirs." The world in which Holmes functioned and which gave rise to him was killed stone dead by the First World War. Why would it be even remotely relevant to British society a century later? That whole Victorian world: colonialism, Anglo-Americanism, masters and servants, it barely existed by 1918. What Sherlock really needed to do was clue itself into the vestiges and replacements of those ideas in the 21st century: the subordination of British power in the West to the United States, modern capitalist heirarchies, race relations and changing class divisions. In Sherlock, however, "Britain" is Mark Gatiss in a three piece suit with an umbrella talking about the Queen, the London metropolis is under threat by the diseased, the foreign and the insane, and the West needs defending from the evil terrorists who want to blow us all up in the name of causes we're too politically correct to divulge. This attitude made sense in Victorian Britain, but it was already starting to show its age then. It's utterly, laughably antiquated now. You might as well do an adaptation of Plato's Politeia and still have it fixated on Athenian cultural anxiety after the Peloponnesian War. As a historical exercise it might be interesting, but what's the point of the adaptation? What, indeed, is the point of adaptations at all? Instead of changing someone else's text for your own time, maybe you should come up with your own characters and stories. They can make it relevant, but then it won't really be Sherlock Holmes anymore, or it can be irrelevant, but it still isn't really Sherlock Holmes. So choose your poison. Benedict Cumberbatch and his supporting cast of overwhelmingly white, predominantly male, exclusively middle class characters saving Britain from terminally ill people, Chinese people, Irish people, empowered women, non-specifically "European" people and so on have absolutely no purpose or relevance in modern culture. It's backward-thinking, redundant and out of touch. This is Sherlock's biggest problem. It doesn't achieve anything. It doesn't need to exist.

Cumberbatch upon discovering Opinions Can Be Wrong.
So there you go then. Agree? Disagree? Good for you, go tell/complain to your friends about it. I thought I could make a point about the show having annoying fans, but that isn't really the show's fault, and all fans are annoying when you get right down to it, so I might as well have said that Sherlock Holmes is predominantly but erroneously depicted wearing a deerstalker cap for all the original information I would have been conveying. I suppose I ought to be grateful that this show isn't a bigger presence in culture due to its very sparse schedule, but that doesn't mean I can't complain about it. I think people are out of touch, which is to say, that you can't have watched that much TV if you really think Sherlock is that special, or if you have it must have been shitty TV. But again, that's just my opinion. You know what you shouldn't do if you like Sherlock? Take this as a personal attack, because I don't know you and can't judge you. You're safe. You're not going to die if the bad man on the internet doesn't like your favourite crappy show.

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