We live in an age of remakes. It’s a bit more blatant in the movie world, but the television industry plays by similar principles. All you have to do is take one look at network television schedules, and you’ll find a plethora of cookie-cutter television shows, each as unimaginative as the next. There’s a difference between a remake and a reimagining, though. The latter implies something more, something inspired, something new. Battlestar Galactica defined the term for me, bringing a clunky television franchise that didn’t have much going for it into the twenty-first century. Now, it’s Sherlock‘s turn.
BBC’s Sherlock takes Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective and plunks him in modern-day London. Sherlock Holmes is a socially-awkward “consulting detective” and John Watson, recently returned from the war in Afghanistan, is his best friend and blogger. “I’m nothing without my blogger,” Sherlock says in the final episode of the first series, a reference to his literary counterpart’s famous line: “I’d be lost without my Boswell.” John’s blog is only one of the ways in which creators Steven Moffat (current showrunner of Doctor Who) and Mark Gatiss (who also plays Sherlock big brother, Mycroft) cleverly tie the show’s literary past to its very televisionary present. Check out the clip below, in which Sherlock acts both disgusted and fascinated by John’s blog and the readership it has attracted.
Sherlock’s modernity is infused into the visual construction of the show. Demonstrated briefly in the above clip is the show’s use of text on screen to illustrate emails, blogs, texts, or even observations or thoughts running through Sherlock’s head. It is a neat, effective trick, and feels very fresh in comparison to the traditional close-up shots of text on computer or cell phone screens seen on most other shows. See this effect in more specific use below:
The show’s directors also make use of innovative edits, transition, camera angles, and superimpositions, to name a few. In the short clip below, the episode’s director turns a peck on the cheek from Irene Adler into quite the epic even by manipulating the speed of the shots in the sequence.
One of the interesting conversations this modern retelling of Sherlock has brought up is a diagnosis of Sherlock’s potential personality disorder. In one scene, Sherlock identifies himself (sarcastically?) as a “high-functioning sociopath,” which seems unfair given the selflessness Sherlock demonstrates at times, and the lengths he will go to for his friends. The same criticism is probably true of the theory that Sherlock has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. I stumbled across this interesting video someone made for a pysch class, showcasing clips that support that theory. Whether the fictional diagnosis holds weight or not, I love when people use television in academia. Very cool.
A more likely diagnosis of Sherlock lies in John’s off-handed comment to Detective Lestrade in Season 2, Episode 2 that Sherlock has Asperger’s, an autism spectrum disorder characterized by difficulties in social interaction and often times a preoccupation with one or a few interests (i.e. crime-solving). It’s refreshing to see this kind of character explored on television, and not as some minor, one-dimensional character who just shows up to provide expertise in some inane subject or for comic relief. Sherlock as protagonist seems to exist somewhere outside of the hero/anti-hero dichotomy so prevalent on television drama today.
Of course, at the heart of any good Sherlock re-telling is the relationship between Holmes and Watson, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock and Martin Freeman’s John have great chemistry. The show makes frequent humorous references to the fact that many people believe them to be a couple, but as the poster of the below video points out, this scene in the first episode is “the first serious, explicit and undeniably canonical discussion of homosexuality in the entire history of the Sherlock Holmes franchise.” I’m taking his (?) word for it. I particularly like his point that, no matter wherever you may fall on the “What is Sherlock’s sexual orientation?” question, John’s assertion that “It’s all fine” is not a sentiment that has been expressed in previous Sherlock incarnations, or in much of television history, for that matter.
My one complaint when it comes to this show, and especially in the context of its modernization, is the lack of empowering female characters, or really many three-dimensional female characters at all. I’ve read this criticism in many places and it’s disappointing that Sherlock‘s version of Irene Adler starts out so strongly in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” and ends up surrendering much of her agency to the male characters in the show. This post on the subject does a particularly good job of breaking her character down.
Despite this fact, at the end of the day, I am in love with this show. It may be, dare I say it, my favorite show on television. It is smart, sweet, and frequently makes me laugh out loud. It kills me that there are only three episodes a year, even if they are an hour-and-a-half in length. The second series, in my opinion, improved upon the excellent first, and the final episode – “The Reichenbach Fall” – ended with a cliffhanger that managed to be both heart-wrenching and mind-boggling. I can’t get too specific without giving too much away, but Freeman’s performance in this episode was particularly impressive. Pay attention, dear readers. The game is afoot!