by ALEX CARNEVALE
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)