Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Concerns before the Victorian "Sherlock" Special

If I know anything, it's that nothing gets people coming here more than me complaining about how much of a load of old wank I think Sherlock is. Nonetheless I must admit that, with a sense of disappointment in myself far greater than could be felt by any other towards me for saying this, seeing Benedict Cumberbatch in the Inverness cape and deerstalker with Martin Freeman sporting a bowler hat and moustache does stir something approaching guilty pleasure in the blackened recesses of my icy heart. I must confess, I'm a bit of a Holmes purist. I like my Holmes Victorian, and I don't think the concept actually works very well outside the confines of the late Nineteenth Century. Of course you can read all this and more on my extensive article on the subject.

In any event it looks like the next bit of Sherlock is an out-of-continuity piece set in the times of the original texts, and I'm all in favour of that, or I would be if I had any faith whatever in the two men who write the show, which I don't. One of my numerous issues with Sherlock is its insistence, like New Who, on "cheekiness." For instance, Holmes and Watson have to be mistaken for a gay couple a million times because "ooh wouldn't it be funny if we transposed their living arrangements from the books into the modern day, everyone would think they were gay." Or "ooh, wouldn't it be funny if Holmes met a modern person who was flirting with him, he wouldn't understand." And so forth. A result of all this "wouldn't it be funny" is that half the time characters in Sherlock don't remotely talk or act like people even do in real life in present times. Yet I'm sure we'll wind up with people cracking out fake Victorian euphemisms about Holmes being gay or whatever in the Nineteenth Century which will be even more unrealistic and jarring. So that's something to not look forward to.

Another element of course is the writing in general, the enormously laboured "drama" which characterises the writing of Sherlock and most modern "dramas" in general. What I mean is that "drama" these days mostly seems to constitute close-ups of characters staring into the distance while sad music warbles in the background, people giving big speeches full of hyperbole and slow-motion crying. Now as I stated in my review of The Empty Hearse, the Victorian age was an age of propriety. Emotions were to be expressed very privately, or not at all. Somehow I doubt that the writers will be able to manage this because it's not what gets viewers and sells DVDs in the age of the modern "drama." As a result I'll be incredibly curious to see how they handle that. The common argument is that Sherlock is "a show about a detective" and not "a detective show." That would make sense if the show, as I've said numerous times, didn't labour the same two points every single week: "is Sherlock Holmes a good guy?" Yes. "Are Holmes and Watson really friends?" Yes. Are we still going to get this in the special? It's a flawed premise. The concept of "Sherlock Holmes" as originally conceived revolves around the idea not of exploring the character of an eccentric detective, but of extraordinary crimes and mysteries solved by an eccentric detective. One of the reasons Sherlock never really says anything is because its "Sherlock Holmes," the protagonist it explores, is just some guy Moffat and Gatiss made up. He's based on Conan Doyle's character, yes, but he's far from being the same thing. Therefore too much exploration of his character borders on irrelevance. The transposition to a modern setting was presumably meant to shed light on the concept, but anything vaguely relevant to the original written character was thoroughly covered in the first series, and possibly the first episode. Maybe this 'special' is just going to be a "romp."

The third and final part of the unholy trinity of big problems with Sherlock is of course how incredibly smug the show is. As far as shows go, Sherlock has its head so far up its own arse that it's coming back out of its own mouth again. And now that you've digested that fairly disgusting image, consider this: we've already had tonnes of knowing nods to the old books, with puns on original titles, Holmes using the deerstalker as some kind of personal branding, and even awareness of its own fanbase in "The Empty Hearse." So how bad can we expect this to be in a show that fully embraces the smug self-awareness which consistently undermines the show's drama if it's set in the very era it so dearly loves to reference? Coy remarks about things that might happen in the future, perhaps? I dread to think.

I'll say this for starters: I hope to high heaven that the bits where Mister Cumberbatch is clad in the stereotypical Sidney Paget illustration gear (the deerstalker et al, don't you know) are set in the countryside, because as any right-thinking student of Holmes and Victoriana knows it would not have even crossed one's mind to wear such an outfit in the Metropolis. And I hope they tone down the cheekiness, the self-referentiality and the "drama" for the sake of the setting. On the other hand, of course, Victorian Britain had just as many drug addicts, perverts and public urinators as we have today, they just pretended that they didn't. So obviously there is room for Victorian-style Sherlock to be shocking... or, perhaps, Sherlocking? Anyway. It could be good. I'd like it to be good. I don't think it will be good, but maybe the fact that during Series 3 people seemed to wake up to the fact that the Sherlock Emperor was not wearing so many clothes as he first appeared has jolted Moffat and Gatiss out of their torpor. Or maybe they'll just do what this cabal of writers usually do - as recently witnessed in their associate Chris Chibnall's response to criticisms of Broadchurch Series 2 - and declare that all their critics are simply wrong and stupid and that there's nothing they could improve.

I really must make clear, and I know that this is a cliché thing to say, but if you want good, proper adaptations of Holmes stories that are true to the tone, setting and characters then you basically can't go wrong with the 80s and 90s Granada TV series starring Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective. I'd say Brett's Holmes is a little more flippant than the written character, but that's about it. Maybe this Sherlock special will approach that, but people have been making half-arsed Victorian Holmes telemovies for years and they never really seem to fully grasp the situation.

Urgh I just realised their Moriarty might be in it. Can't wait until December...

"No one's forcing you to watch it."

Piss off.

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