Each Friday in The Televangelists, one of our writers examines the met and missed potential of television.
I don’t watch much TV these days. Mad Men, Downton Abbey, and Game of Thrones have all been tried and found wanting, to the universal consternation of my peer group. I will, however, watch anything and everything written and/or produced by Steven Moffat. The three episodes of the second season (or series, if you want to be properly British) of Sherlock, the contemporary re-vision of Sherlock Holmes that Moffat co-created with Mark Gatiss, are currently airing on PBS, and they are all that is tiding me over until the next season of Moffat-produced (and sometimes Moffat-written) Doctor Who begins.
If Sherlock is your first exposure to Steven Moffat, you might not be aware that many of its excellent qualities are characteristic of Steven Moffat’s writing, or that there even is a person named “Steven Moffat” (to be fair, Mark Gatiss and Steve Thompson have each written as many episodes of Sherlock as Steven Moffat, but the only other shows of theirs I’ve seen are a few lackluster episodes of Doctor Who, so my paean is Moffat-centric). I first became acquainted with Moffat’s writing eight or nine years ago, when a friend introduced me to the BBC sitcom Coupling. Other than the show’s Britishness, little on its surface would have drawn me to it. The premise—six attractive professional twenty- and thirty-somethings meet regularly for drinks—sounded something like Friends or Cheers (though I wouldn’t know, as I was never interested enough to watch either show). The DVD case, which bills it as “the naughty new comedy about nothing . . . but SEX,” also would have been something of a turn-off. But the first episode hooked me, and I’ve been a Moffat fan ever since. Here, then, is a brief tour through Moffat’s oeuvre of awesomeness, focusing on elements of Sherlock season 2 opener “A Scandal in Belgravia” that are also present in his other shows.
1) Structure, structure, structure. “Blink,” the single best episode of Doctor Who ever, is a model of it. In Coupling, a gag made at the beginning of the episode comes back in an entirely new context at the end. In Moffaty things, if not always in life, everything happens for a reason. Sometimes that reason is just a really hilarious punchline; sometimes you think something happens for the sake of a punchline, but it turns out that that something is the linchpin upon which the entire episode turns. In “A Scandal in Belgravia,” what appears to be a montage for the purpose of character illustration turns out to be a series of clues to the central mystery. Moffat’s writing forces you to notice everything in the moment, but to reinterpret it later. While Sherlock himself assesses things at a glance, often accurately, Moffat trains viewers to withhold certainty and to be humble hermeneuts of experience.
2) Sex is a game of words, and it’s used to reveal character. While the bright young things on Coupling have a far different attitude about sex from my own, I still appreciate that Moffat doesn’t idealize the physical aspect of sex. The relevant body parts don’t always work, people have panic attacks, they forget to take their socks off and end up looking silly. None of this is actually shown, mind you—just talked over the next day in witty, anxious banter. Moffat’s characters use words to shield themselves from emotionally intimate or otherwise embarrassing moments: see the famed “cushion rant” in Coupling, in which sex is never mentioned, even though sexual tension is the subtext behind the main character’s logorrhea:
You’ll see similar tendencies in Moffat’s Sherlock Holmes. In “A Scandal in Belgravia,” characters even use nudity, paradoxically, as a bulwark against vulnerability. Sherlock arrives at Buckingham Palace clad only in a sheet; he wears his disregard for convention as a suit of armor and refuses to put on clothes just because he’s been summoned by the royal family. It’s no coincidence, then, when dominatrix Irene Adler refers to putting on her “battle dress” (AKA her birthday suit); she appears nude before Sherlock in an attempt to distract and intimidate him. There was a good bit of ballyhooing beforehand about the “nude scene” in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” all of which seems groundless to me. First of all, there are actually two nude scenes, the first involving Sherlock and the second involving Irene: this is no mere ploy designed to increase male (or female, for that matter) viewership. Second, the scenes work thematically to highlight the similarities between Sherlock and Irene and to show that the attraction between them is so much on the mental level that it doesn’t matter whether they’re wearing clothes or not. Third, you don’t actually see anything: artfully placed limbs and furniture may not be “realistic,” but they are tasteful, and they keep the focus where Moffat wants it to be.
3) There are identifiable themes, and the structure reinforces them without bashing you over the head. (This is what structure is for, people.) Now that Moffat is contributing episodes to both Doctor Who and Sherlock, it’s possible to see some cross-pollination between the two. There have been a lot of faked deaths on the Moffat-authored episodes of both shows recently; it’s as if the ghost of Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous resuscitation of Sherlock Holmes after killing him off at Reichenbach Falls has been haunting everything Moffat writes, but he’s subverting audience expectations by putting the death-cheating at the beginning rather than the end. With Season 2 of Sherlock ending with an episode titled “The Reichenbach Fall,” it seems like this theme will unite the season (don’t spoil anything, those of you who have already watched the episode, legally or illegally). In the most recent season of Doctor Who, which opened with the Doctor’s apparent death, one of the main challenges Moffat wrestled with was how to cheat death while still making self-sacrifice meaningful, and I think he achieved it. Other typical Moffat themes include memory (if something didn’t actually happen—in this timeline—but I remember it, is it still real?), perception, men who think they’re infallible and turn out to be wrong, and the inherent creepiness of British children.
Does Moffat make missteps? Sure. There was a fourth season of Coupling. (The BBC usually limits shows to three series/seasons, and for that we Americans force-fed a TV diet produced according to the “more is better!” aesthetic are eternally grateful. Moffat should have stopped at three.) He also made the mistake of letting his name continue to appear on The Adventures of Tintin after withdrawing from the project. (The final product bears little evidence of having been written by anyone, let alone Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright (another of my favorite screenwriters, whose love of structure is akin to Moffat’s).) The most recent Doctor Who Christmas special, “The Doctor, the Widow, and the Wardrobe,” was a little disappointing in that it used Narnia as window-dressing for sentimentality about World War II and Christmas, but, as far as I can tell, you can’t be British without being sentimental about World War II and Christmas.
Moffat does have his weaknesses as a writer, but, on the whole, there’s still no other writer whose shows I so consistently enjoy. So, Sherlock fans, if you enjoy the show not because you love the Conan Doyle source material and not because you have a crush on Benedict Cumberbatch (apparently this is a thing, though I don’t really see why, apart from his incomparable name), but because you love the writing, despair not. Multiple meticulously structured parallel universes of Moffat’s await your viewing.