Saturday, 8 September 2012

TV: Sherlock - Series One review

It has taken me a while to watch the first series of BBC’s re-imagining of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock. I’ll admit that I was a little sceptical about the prospect of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, but on the recommendation of some friends who kept insisting it was great, I took the plunge.

Since watching the Wire, Sopranos and Red Riding, I have become quite disillusioned with TV and find it difficult to watch most programmes without sneering and reaching for the remote control. There have been a few gems over the past couple of years, Walking Dead, Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire spring to mind; but in terms of British drama, it seems that the depth and quality of writing just isn’t there. This might be due of limited budgets, or it might be that TV executives have become so cynical that dumbed-down ‘structured reality’ shows such as The Only Way is Essex, Made in Chelsea and Geordie Shore are seen as sufficient alternatives to something of substance and quality. This is why, from the outset, I was struck by Sherlock as something that I could really enjoy.

Benedict Cumberbatch is not only a great name, but also performs a great Holmes. His somewhat quirky delivery combined with his logical coldness give the Holmes character some interesting dimensions that have not been explored in previous portrayals. Holmes’ sexuality features in the subtext throughout, with his libido seemingly somewhere between homosexuality and asexuality – a difficult combination to balance without losing subtlety, but one that is done very well. I really like how Holmes is portrayed as an obsessive-compulsive sociopath – his cold reasoning comes across as heartless at times. There is a point in one of the episodes where Holmes is confronted by someone recently murdered, rather than reacting with sympathy, shock, or anger, he simply complained that there was not enough ‘data’ to say anything concrete about the murder’s perpetrator, and simply moved on.

With Sherlock being set in modern-day London, the use of modern technology plays an integral part in the unfurling of the narrative. When Holmes pulled out a smart phone in the first episode and began to search the internet for clues, I was worried that Sherlock was going to be more like 24 than Conan Doyle’s stories. In 24, the hero is constantly fed information by a room full of techno-geeks. Of course, if technology was overlooked in favour of Doyle’s Holmes, I can imagine I’d have the same exasperated reaction that I get when watching an episode of the Apprentice when the contestants are given a Yellow Pages, an A to Z and a horse-drawn cart to launch a cutting-edge technology company (okay, the last one was an exaggeration, but you get my point). The use of digital technology in Sherlock tends to aid the narrative, as Holmes’ deductive reasoning is still centre-stage and the driving force behind the plot. Indeed, much of Holmes’ consulting work comes as a direct result of his website on deductive reasoning.

Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be Sherlock Holmes without his chronicler and sidekick, John Watson. In Sherlock, Watson is played by Martin Freeman, star of the seminal British comedy Hardware. Like in Doyle’s original stories, Watson is an army doctor who was discharged after being injured in Afghanistan (how times have changed). After moving in with Holmes, Watson spends much of his time when not sidekicking writing about Holmes’ exploits on his blog. Freeman makes a great Watson, his delivery and demeanour are almost exactly how I imagine Watson in the original stories – this is testament to the quality of the screenwriting, and Freeman’s rather underrated acting skills.

At the end of the final episode of the first series, Holmes’ arch-nemesis, Moriarty is revealed. I did not like this for a number of reasons. I felt that it was too soon to introduce Moriarty as a character. He was a constant presence throughout the series without him ever actually appearing, this created a really interesting dynamic in the sense that Moriarty was ever-present, but never seen. The main issue I had, however, was with Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Moriarty. His attempts to come across as an unhinged psychopath seemed at odds with cold and calculating cunning that his prior actions would suggest. Though I realise the importance of updating the Moriarty character, it just came across as campy and illogical. I know that some people loved Scott’s portrayal, but in my mind Moriarty would have been a more frightening and imposing character were he to adopt a very cold and deliberate delivery. Perhaps it is because I was so taken by Javier Barden’s role as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, but every time I watch the portrayal of a psychopath as being a bit wacky and “out there”, the disappointment seeps in.

In spite of my gripes about the portrayal of Moriarty, Sherlock is still an excellent show. The characters and situations are (mostly) believable, and the stories have been retold and re-imagined in interesting and intriguing ways. The show rewards readers of the original stories by playing on some famous lines and making self-aware references that the astute fan will notice, whist still being accessible and relevant to the unfamiliar. With the second series box-set on its way, I can’t wait to see more.

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