Sherlock– The Game’s Occasionally Afoot

It is an interesting phenomenon to have two very different presentations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective, Sherlock Holmes, and his trusty sidekick John Watson on the telly at the same time. This is only possible really because one is a BBC production which gets farmed to the U.S. a season late by way of PBS, and one is the brainchild or the brain trust at CBS. When you throw in Robert Downey Jr’s. movie Sherlocks the visual arts are virtually buzzing with Sherlock possibilities. And indeed they are all different, very different. This particular review will focus on ‘Sherlock’ rather than the movies or the American TV series ‘Elementary’.

The basic conceit of the ‘Sherlock’ series is that various of the original Conan Doyle stories will be updated and postdated into the present. Thus the original stories are taken and modified to suit a contemporary ethos. Undoubtedly, many purists will not be happy with such tampering with the original tales. One wonders what Jeremy Brett would have said as well. The other element in this on again, off again series, is that we have precious few episodes, but each episode is done like a mini-movie, of 90 or more minutes. Thus we have run through three seasons, and the last two have had exactly three episodes each.

Let it be said that the acting Of Cumberbatch and Freeman is terrific, if too sporadic to keep ‘Sherlock’ regularly before us, because they are too busy with work for the silver screen. And now the word is, it may be two years before there are any more episodes. Let it also be said that the cinematography and special effects are terrific as well. But quite frankly, some of the adaptations don’t work so well, and the stories themselves stretch credulity past the breaking point at times.

Even within a certain genre of story telling like this, there needs to be an air of believability, that is sometimes lacking in this show. For this third season’s three episodes, the first episode, ‘The Empty Hearse’ is really the winner of the three, but the tale set during John Watson’s wedding to Mary Morestan really does become something out of theater of the absurd, especially during the speech-making at the wedding reception. In the hands of lesser actors, this episode would have turned into a farce, and as it is, one wants to say—-Really? Really? I don’t think Conan Doyle would have been happy. The final episode of the season, a modification of the Charles Milverton story does present us with a creepy villain, and provides Sherlock with a real challenge, but still it could have been more. Lestrade in this third season is a pale shadow of the Lestrade in the original stories, or even in the first season of ‘Sherlock’ and hardly provides a foil for the great detective here.

For my money, the series ‘Elementary’ which provides us with all original stories set in NY instead of London is the more steady and reliable, not to mention believable, series. While Jonny Miller and Lucy Lieu may not be quite a match for Mssrs. Cumberbatch and Freeman, they are plenty good enough, and have already provided us with lots of 43 minute episodes week after week. Of course each series should be evaluated on its own merits, and within its own evident goals. We are fortunate to have two quality series on Sherlock. One can hope that at some point the BBC will have enough revenue and time to do a larger number of episodes in a season.

  • Bill Clendineng

    You didn’t mention the other recent reincarnation of Holmes – Skyfall. With Bond as Holmes and M as Watson it could have been a terrific update of Doyle. Too bad it didn’t work.

  • pastordt

    Love ‘em both. Even the cray-cray plotting of Sherlock because. . . the acting, the production values, the music, the overall whiz-bang feel of it all. Love Elementary for it’s longer/deeper look at the inside of Sherlock and the fascinating connection to Watson plus the recovery angle. Mystified by the brother bit there, though.

  • Beth

    How do you know what Conan Doyle would have thought? He didn’t
    particularly care for his character, so I doubt he would have had much
    of an opinion about any incarnation of Sherlock Holmes. He basically
    told people who wanted to write stage plays that they could do whatever
    they liked with him.

    Season 3 was IMHO just as strong as the other two seasons, with an extra dose of humour and fun. The cleverness of the adaptation, the depth of characterization and the snappy dialogue make this show a joy to watch. Too bad for you that you didn’t like the writing; you’re missing out on some of the best aspects of the show then. I was caught off guard by some of the plot twists and
    it just made the show more entertaining.

    Personally, I also love theatre of the absurd, especially Ionesco. The surreal and absurd elements of the show (like the mind palace scenes) are often intriguing. They certainly don’t get in the way of the characters or the story.

    I don’t really watch Elementary (tried but could not get into it; the characters just didn’t seem like Holmes and Watson to me), so I can’t really compare them. But
    to me this is one of the best adaptations there is, next to the more faithful Jeremy Brett one from back in the 80s. This is less faithful though it gets a surprising number of things just right and has the right sort of spirit. When you read a Conan Doyle story, it’s not like reading Agatha Christie, it’s more like reading an adventure story. This season captures that spirit really well.

    It’s clever about updating the original plots too, such as [spoilers] having Mary be an orphan because she’s reinvented herself with a new identity, having
    Sherlock destroy Magnussen’s archive pretty much as he does in the
    original (though not with fire) etc.

    Finally, your concluding comment that you hope that the BBC will make more episodes a season shows that you don’t really understand the show, its format or British television. This is more like a miniseries than a regular American-style series, so 3 episodes is fine. Really, this season was more like one long episode. The last one tied the previous two together in a really interesting way. I don’t have the time to watch a regular season of tv. This is better; it’s even better than most movies.

  • Brian Roden

    Basil Rathbone, anyone? Always a disconnect seeing him as the hero in the old SH movies, then as the villain in Robin Hood opposite Flynn.