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Classic Recordings
Robert Altman Week

Friday
Jan062012

« In Which We Boomerang Across The Pond »

Uncle Sleuth

by ALEX CARNEVALE

Sherlock
creators Steven Moffat & Mark Gatiss

The detective work of Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's version of the character is only impressive if you have never seen House or CSI, even once accidentally while waiting for something else to come on. "Noises can tell you everything," the sleuth opines, and somehow everyone around him resists vomiting in their tea. Cumberbatch's Sherlock Holmes treats women as if they were mentally disabled idiots incapable of understanding the logic (of noises). If Holmes treated people this way in America, he'd be qualified for the Republican presidential nomination. For christ's sake, the man smokes indoors.

Bringing this UK icon "into the 21st century" actually consists of bringing it into the late 1990s. This younger Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is barely aware of what a blog is, even though it is the major source of his notoriety. Holmes reads the newspaper every morning like a 60 year old retiree, wakes up in a bathrobe and has a servant, even though he lives in a shitty Baker Street apartment. When he is abducted to Buckingham Palace, Holmes refuses to put on clothes, but he is still super impressed: he becomes so giddy he steals an ashtray as a memento. This Sherlock is about as modern as the Queen's corgis.

There is a certain Luddite sensibility to Sherlock. Sure, Watson (Martin Freeman) uses a computer, but (1) he appears to be running Windows Vista and (2) he doesn't use much more than the thing's webcam and google search. In fact, Sherlock focuses on the insights that man can achieve without a computer, which is merely another tool in his psychic arsenal. While in a literary sense this assertion might be slightly plausible, in the real world detective work without forensics, computer science and DNA testing is about as likely as a grown man with an ex-military manservant.

To solve the crucial riddle of the show's second season premiere, Sherlock Holmes merely has to input a four character code into a mobile phone. Deciphering such a problem would merely be minutes in the life of any decent cryptographer or tattoed waif, but it takes Holmes the entire episode. Unless he is merely dragging it out to be dramatic, the display of his intuitive abilities is underwhelming at best, criminally negligent at worst.

The villain of this Sherlock is a black widow named Irene Adler. She is both a dominatrix and a lesbian, which I suppose incriminates her twice. Her lack of true interest in men is inevitably her fatal flaw. When Holmes and Watson first meet her, she shows up naked — the true villain is all woman. By the end, when he claims his final victory over her naked carapace, it is not simply enough that she begs for his indulgence, but she must also be reduced to tears like the simpering whore he believes her to be. As a final insult, he calls her, "The woman" and dresses her in a burqa.

As bad as the female gender is, Americans drive Sherlock absolutely bonkers. If a British person offends him, the ensuing Oscar Wilde-like dance constitutes an elaborate game he's going to win anyway. When Holmes encounters an American, he pepper sprays the poor guy and throws him out a window like some kind of reverse Captain America. I expect this kind of inferiority complex from Sarkozy, but threatening the people of the United States with a fractured skull just seems below the belt.

As it happens, the central plot of Sherlock's premiere (it's the show's fourth overall episode — a teleplay takes at least four times as long to write when the government is involved) concerns a grotesque caricature of 9/11. For shame. I had to watch this youtube over 40 times to get the bad taste out of my mouth and quietly sing "Neeeeen elevvvvvvven" to myself until I nodded off from patriotism overload.

Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill the original Sherlock Holmes, but he was unsuccessful in this attempt. Such a move would be too original and creative for such a predictable character. Moffat's Sherlock is just as obvious — he is more focused on what would be the most suitable quip than ever engaging with the people around him. The most surprising move he ever makes is to not have sex, another affectation that seems decidedly anti-modern. "Are you really so obvious?" his brother Mycroft asks him, which I suppose is his attempt to explain the program's inadequacies as part of its charm.

Three things manage to save Sherlock from being an outright bomb. The first is that the show looks astonishing; the Fringe-esque twists, cuts, and special effects of the show manage to make it visually stimulating even when you can see the next plot "twist" a mile away. The show's sets are also magnificent and, from all evidence, insanely expensive.

The second saving grace of Sherlock is Moffat's talent for dialogue — it's what made his version of Doctor Who and his sex comedy Coupling more than a rehash of Quantum Leap and Friends. Bouncing back and forth, Freeman and Cumberbatch are both very entertaining in their roles, each containing more charisma in their fingertips than Jude Law has in his entire body. Essentially Sherlock is a delicious but not-so filling pastry. Perhaps the real problem is that Sherlock Holmes wasn't a very good character to begin with.

The idea of the know-it-all detective actually represented a regressive move in the mystery genre. Far more interesting than the detective who knows everything is the detective who drinks too much, or the detective who is employed in a more intriguing job like that of a businessman or priest. The ideal detective doesn't even know he is one, or better yet, isn't a he at all.

Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording. He tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here. He last wrote in these pages about a new novel from Vernor Vinge.

"Either Nelson" - Guided by Voices (mp3)

"The Things That Never Need" - Guided by Voices (mp3)

"Cyclone Utilities" - Guided by Voices (mp3)


Reader Comments (11)

The context of previous episodes is missing in this review. Moffat's Holmes is a sociopath, with serious social inadequacies. Without knowing that from prior episodes, Cumberbatch appears very cocky and know-it-all-ish indeed. But played right, it becomes an intriguing vulnerability - this is a man who doesn't know that the earth orbits the sun because he prefers to know about the coagulation of saliva after death. He's also not interested in social relationships - at least sexual ones. Asexual characters are vastly underrepresented. This episode was supposed provide conflict on those points by introducing his 'match': a hypersexual female character with similar intelligence. Sadly, I agree that Moffat is not good at writing women. Irene could have been more intriguing than she was without having to resort to explicit nudity and all the tropes he likes. However, in the original writing she is also referred to as 'the woman' - it is Holmes way of expressing his admiration for her, as cringeworthy as it is. There are always tradeoffs with characters. You can have a character with unbelievable brains offset by sociopathic tendencies, or become a show like CSI with unbelievable tech and mediocre characters (with outstanding good looks). The former is far more compelling. Whatever faults Holmes has stem from the original character - Moffat's done an impressive job reinventing him given the baloney that is Jude Law and Downey Jnr these days.
January 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim
The author does know that House is supposed to BE Sherlock Holmes, yes? All the way down to the sidekick "Wilson" and the drug addiction.
January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBadThingUS
I feel like this review perfectly encapsulates why British and American entertainment don't see eye to eye ("If Holmes treated people this way in America, he'd be qualified for the Republican presidential nomination"--British humor is witty and scathing, Americans get butthurt easily). It also reads like you barely even glanced at the episode, let alone the ones that came before it.

I think it's safe to say Sherlock is meant to be antithetical to the CSI model anyhow. Okay, sure, I guess scientists and med students are gonna prefer the technical precision of that sort of show, but they look so damn gaudy and the characters/dialogue are completely dull. What is the point of serial television if it doesn't have characters who develop and a plot to get invested in? You also suggest that Sherlock doesn't use any technical equipment or forensic science in his research--did you miss all the time he spends in St. Bart's Hospital? And Sherlock knows perfectly well what a blog is--he _has one_, which we discover when John Watson googles him in the very first episode. John blogs too! This is the central tenet of the modernisation--whereas Watson's diaries served as the primary text for Conan Doyle's stories, here they are committed to posterity through his blog. Again, all these errors could've been fixed had you actually watched the first season!

"For christ's sake, the man smokes indoors." For christ's sake, IT WAS ONE SCENE that existed to establish the relationship between two brothers. The whole point of Sherlock Holmes is that he subverts and outwits the law--hence the badassery of a single Christmas Eve ciggy in a morgue. Does that really offend you so much?

The only thing I can possibly agree with you on is this: that Steven Moffat refuses to write women without fucking them over and one point or another. His adaptation of Irene Adler fails a queer analysis because she ends up being just another lesbian-turned-straight by the sheer brilliance of a Magic Man. I found her character thrilling until that happened, which really upset me. Nevertheless, I find it quite rich that you seem to be holding up The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo as superior, because that girl doesn't get to do any ass-kicking detective work until _after_ Hollywood's had its fill of graphic, violent rape. (In full disclosure, I have not seen the film for that very reason--I find rape in the movies highly triggering.) Sherlock's nudity scene was extremely tastefully done (you don't see anything) and exists only to throw Sherlock off guard, to make it impossible for him to deduce anything from her apparel.

My dream is that in 10 years or so, when all these macho Sherlocks have blown over, someone (me) will do a genderswapped version in which a badass female Sherlock works outside the law, is asexual, and deflects all advances--until she meets Joan Watson, perhaps, with whom she lives gaily ever after. Hurrah!

tl;dr This was pretty substandard for This Recording. Do your homework next time, it's worth it.
January 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJuliana
The author has clearly never read the original Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock hated women, he thought they were a waste of space really. He's also missed the point of the episode in various places., doesn't seem to realise House is based on Sherlock Holmes and that the reason that the American was so badly treated was because he hit Mrs Hudson in the face. Plus that's how Sherlock works; he doesn't need anything like a computer because he's so clever.
He hasn't done any of his homework, doesn't appreciate good literary works (Sherlock Holmes is one of the greatest literary creations).
In short Alex Carnevale is a complete and utter idiot.
January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterB
How could the author possibly say that solving any crime with unrealistic and unreal technologies (CSI) is more impressive than solving crimes with outstanding wits? For your information, there's hardly ever found any important DNA material and analysis of that material will cost up to 4 weeks.

It's disappointing to see how the author lacks his research on both the Sherlock series as on forensics in general.

/Think, it's the new sexy./
January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFYI
"Perhaps the real problem is that Sherlock Holmes wasn't a very good character to begin with."
I HOPE you're not serious about this...
January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAndrea
I feel like you have missed the point of this show tremendously. Especially the point of Irene Adler.
It is not incriminating for a woman be a dominatrix. It is even less so for a woman to be a lesbian. Honestly, are we not past thinking anything lesser of lesbians than straight women?
I don't blame you for thinking low of a dominatrix, as liberal views on sex aren't quite thought of as proper or normal in this society. Still, Irene's being a dominatrix isn't about her being slutty. It's about her bring powerful. She's just as much of a genius and an intellectual as Sherlock, and her being a dominatrix shows that she knows how to play with people's minds, not because she is a woman but because she is an antagonist.
Sexism (as well as racism, but that's irrelevant right now) wouldn't thrive so much if people didn't take any opportunity to call people out on it. Calling someone out on it when it was not intended shows nothing but the caller's own sexism, as when thinking of everyone equally, it's easy to realize that some character flaws are simply human flaws, not female flaws.
January 8, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTaco
To the British people, the scene with the plane evokes the senseless tragedy of the Lockerbie bombing, America (my homeland) does not have ownership over terrorist attacks.

Sherlock Holmes not a important character? Every single detective story where the hero solves problems with his brain - and not brawn - and you can count among these American greats, Colombo, Kojak, etc. as well as the first 'forensic' detective Quincy - come from the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle.

The point of SHERLOCK in the era of CSI is that this detective can make those great leaps to solve the case through careful study of details coupled with a complete knowledge of human nature and motivation, even if Sherlock Holmes (a flawed character himself) cannot connect on a social level with his fellow human beings. He's the ultimate outsider looking in. That is compelling and what viewers acutely relate to, whichever side of the pond you're on.
January 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterkaradin
In a way I agree with this review partly because I never liked Sherlock Holmes and never thought his dick attitude to be cool. And I guess that if you move it to modern days, you can't do it in a half assed way, i.e. no use of forensics. But at the same time I did enjoy it, mostly for the pacing and the homosexual tension.
January 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterD
Reading through the response to this article is great/hilarious. Juliana claimed that Americans "get butthurt easily," but taking these comments, and the link posted by Ellen into consideration, I'm going to say that Sherlock fans are the ones that win the Butthurt Easily award.
January 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura

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