Sunday, November 14, 2010

Discovery: Sherlock

Okay, so this is not so much a discovery as something that has taken a bit of the internet by storm.  Sherlock is a 3 part TV series that aired on the BBC in July and August of 2010, then was picked up by PBS's Masterpiece this fall.  It's currently streaming on the PBS site until December, and the DVDs are already for sale.

This iteration of the legend takes the eponymous character and places him firmly into our own time.  The creators, Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss, wanted to forget about all the mythology about Mr. Holmes, especially the ideas that the collective memory holds from other film versions, and pull out the realities from the source material.  For example, Holmes has always been ahead of the curve in terms of technology.  Therefore, this Holmes, as played by Benedict Cumberbatch, has his own web site, sends text messages and checks tide schedules by internet search.  He also befriends, of course, Dr. Watson, (Martin Freeman) who has just returned from deployment in Afghanistan.  No stodgy old harrumphers in their fifties here.  Watson chronicles Holmes' exploits on a blog, which to this blogger, is a hoot.

I find it hard to even get an entry into the delights of this show.  The deductions are fun to follow, and the actors are top notch.  But I suppose the backbone is the writing.  Not only do the complex episodes hold together, it's clear that there's a lot of fun to be had.  "Amazing!" says Watson.  "Meretricious," replies Holmes.  "And a Happy New Year..." responds Lestrade.  Exchanges like that speak to character and relationship so efficiently that the time restrictions for a TV show do not hinder the adventures.

Episode 1, A Study in Pink, reflects the real A Study in Scarlet, the novel that introduced the characters.  Holmes and Watson do meet through an old friend, and become flatmates because they both are impossible flatmates.  Lestrade pulls in Holmes on a case because he's desperate for help.  The game is on!  ("Afoot" would have been much too antiquated.  The writers do a terrific job of updating while giving nods to the canon for fanboys and girls.)  One fascinating update is the treatment of the age old question of whether or not Holmes and Watson were actually a couple.  They maneuver that question themselves, awkwardly, and we find that Holmes is "married to his work," but everyone ELSE thinks they're a couple.  And are totally cool with it.  When a friendly waiter brings a candle to their table over Watson's protestations of "I'm not his date," it just had me in stitches. Holmes gives Watson a purpose, and Watson humanizes Holmes, so they need each other, but not in THAT way.  Moffat and Gatiss say on a production video that the casting was key in that they needed something of "an officer and a slightly junior officer" and they managed to find their junior officer with Martin Freeman.  It's not quite a partnership of equals, but Holmes can't run completely roughshod over Watson or he'd just leave.  It's a tricky balance that I think falls directly onto Freeman's shoulders.  That leaves room for Cumberbatch to find some respect and admiration lurking in Holmes for another human being. In this episode watch at the end for the bit with the blanket.  Genius!

Episode 2, The Blind Banker is the old room-locked-from-the-inside chestnut, and it was the weakest of the three.  Of all the plotlines that could have been developed with Chinese smuggler/gangsters, they still fell back on the Orientalism of the antiquities/acrobats undercover motif.  The midpoint section when Holmes gets thwarted and frustrated (human emotion!) worked well, but the end point with our heroes plus Watson's love interest tied up in a subway facing a killing machine was a bit cheesy.  Sarah did get her licks in, but I suspect it was to mollify us because she'd just be tied up and saved by Watson and Holmes later.

Episode 3, The Great Game was as strong as the first, and introduced the nemesis, Moriarty. In this episode, Holmes must solve five mini-puzzles before the time runs out on innocent bystanders rigged with bombs.  I have watched the beginning of this episode over and over because it is so funny.  The cold open could have been cut, it didn't give anything except for how far Holmes was willing to travel to find a good mystery (Belarus, it turns out.) But he returns unsatisfied, and is bored. BORED! and firing Watson's service weapon into a smiley face spraypainted (prop from Episode 2) on the wall.  Sherlock in a Snit as I've dubbed it is the funniest piece of character work I've seen in a while.  Cumberbatch is flinging all two meters of himself around the flat in his jammies and a silk robe (the infamous dressing gown), walking on top of the coffee table, and it is a riot.  Mrs. Hudson hopes that a nice murder will turn up for him, and sure enough, somebody comes along who is doing something quite new.  A twist leads to a confrontation between Holmes, Watson and Moriarty, and the episode ends on a cliffhanger.

Thank goodness it seems the BBC will be producing at least 3 more episodes, production dependent upon Moffat's and Gatiss' writing schedule on Dr. Who, Freeman's The Hobbit  schedule (still in pre-prod purgatory, though) and dealing with Cumberbatch's propulsion to stardom.  He was in Atonement, recently in Four Lions, and other BBC productions, but he's got his golden ticket now.  The production quality is BBC all over, very high quality, and visually they use tilt-shifting in the beginning credits and interstitial spaces to show London as if it's in miniature.  Although London is crawling with modern skyscrapers, the style reminds us of the source material in the Victorian era.  The color saturation sets the heightened mood for these life or death mysteries, and of course Holmes himself IS a heightened mood.

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