Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Sherlock: A Dissent

Smaug and Bilbo
The new season of Sherlock has been running on PBS so I thought I'd repost my - very mild - dissent about the show from last year... 
By all accounts Sherlock has been a huge success. It's been a ratings hit in the UK, it's been sold to 150 countries, the newspaper critics have been universally supine (here in Australia the critics all love it) and an American version has even been sold to CBS starring Johnny Lee Miller (the very first Mr Angelina Jolie) as Holmes. If you’ve been avoiding all forms of media for the last year I should explain that the show is an update of the Sherlock Holmes stories that takes place in contemporary London in a parallel universe where Holmes, Watson and presumably Arthur Conan Doyle never existed. Co-conceived and written by Stephen Moffatt of Dr Who fame, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, both of whom will also feature in the upcoming Hobbit from Peter Jackson. While the casting is great, the direction slick and there is real "chemistry" between the lead actors I do have a few qualms with Sherlock and these are to do with the writing.
All writers have little tics that they carry around with them, some good, some not so good. Moffatt is a brainy guy (the power station gag in episode 1 was great and all the sly references to old Holmes stories are wonderful) but one of Moffatt's tics is to make everything really dark, really early. The first season of Sherlock was incredibly violent for what is essentially a rather fluffy mystery show. We saw the torture of old people and children and in the last episode of the season dozens of people died in a bomb explosion. I guess Moffatt thinks that if he kills a lot of people it somehow ups the ante. It doesn't. It’s an old saw of mystery writing that whenever you’re stuck over a plot you either kill someone or have someone burst into a room holding a revolver. When Moffatt gets stuck he kills loads of people. But it's better and purer to be more economical with your deaths and some of the best mysteries ever written or put on TV have no killing at all. Mass murder may be a sign of the times but it is not a good sign.
My second problem with Sherlock is that the "mysteries" themselves are all a bit rubbish. In the last season a serial killing taxi driver got people to take a poison pill "simply by talking to them." That sounds good doesn't it? Maybe, you're thinking, he did a number on their mind like Hannibal Lecter did with Miggs in Silence of the Lambs.  No such luck. When the denouement came we discovered that he got people to take the poison by pointing a gun at them and ordering them to do it. All the mysteries in Sherlock seem to resolve like that. Nice little premise, crap mystery. In the first episode of season 2 we even had a man who got killed by a plastic boomerang that came back and hit him in the head while he was distracted. A good writer always gives you a clue as to how to solve the mystery. Our clue was this: "the hiker had recently travelled abroad." By that we were supposed to deduce that he had gone to Australia, bought one of those cheap plastic boomerangs and by a miracle the boomerang he had thrown had come back and killed him. When in the history of the world has a boomerang ever come back to anyone? And where was this boomerang? Well it had conveniently "washed downstream" even though this incident had taken place in a field. It may sound like I'm going to town on this, but a boomerang? Really?  
My third problem with the writing in Sherlock is that Holmes doesn't actually solve any of the mysteries by deduction but rather by a kind of magic. He not only sees things that others don't but things that other people can't. He's not a scientist or an investigator he's a magician. In the clunky old Holmes stories the reader has a chance of hitting upon the solution before Holmes does but in the BBC series the viewer can't possibly do it because we can't do magic. This is cheating and it's not cool.
I think Stephen Moffatt is aware of his shortcomings. Designing a really good closed room mystery takes patience and skill, in fact designing any really good mystery takes a deep awareness of the mystery genre and a working knowledge of hundreds of books. If you don't have that, a good way of deceiving the viewer is to throw a lot of stuff up there on the screen. Instead of one well thought out mystery you chuck up a dozen (again, as in the premiere episode of season 2). This is another classic writer's (and magician's trick) and it's called misdirection. You blind the reader, punter or viewer with so much stuff they don't realise what's going on.
So why has Sherlock gotten such great reviews? Well it's actually a pretty good programme. And good acting, good direction and a fantastic cast can mask a lot of defects. But more importantly, I think the reviews have been so stellar because the guys who write the TV review columns for the national papers are not close viewers (with one or two honourable exceptions). TV is the most democratic of media and TV critics strive to be populist. I understand that but still they should be sensitive to good and bad genre tropes and they should point them out even in a superior series like Sherlock.