Sherlock and the burden of expectations: BBC show failed to sustain standard it set

Zenia D'Cunha

Jan,22 2017 09:54:11 IST

Here’s the thing about Sherlock Holmes.

Everyone (okay, almost) has read/heard/known about him. Maybe in their secondary school English textbook or maybe as a random reference in Hindi films or maybe when they discovered Karamchand for the first time.

So when Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and, BBC got about to the incredibly ambitious task of revamping the iconic detective’s story by setting it in modern day London, it was bound to be noticed.

But in the six years since the first season of Sherlock aired in 2010, it has been more than noticed; it has been become a superhit, made Hollywood stars of its leads, been followed globally and awarded universally, and created an internet phenomena (cult?). Such has been the reach of the show, today Sherlock Holmes is identified more easily with Benedict Cumberbatch, surpassing the likes of Robert Downey Jr, Basil Rathbone, and Jeremy Brett.

A still from season 4. Image Credit: Twitter @Sherlock221b

A still from season 4. Image Credit: Twitter @Sherlock221b

However, these unprecedented accolades have thinned out, as not all the four seasons have been as smooth and stunning as the protagonist's deductions.

For fans of the show who have weathered, and often ridden, the storm of a show for over six years and 13 episodes, it has been nothing short of a rollercoaster. And as someone who has followed the show (often obsessively) for six years, seen it rise to giddy heights with A Scandal in Belgravia and fall to the lows of The Abominable Bride, I can attest to this topsy-turvy ride.

But, ultimately it must be said: Sherlock has not been able to sustain its standard over these six years, not at least according to the audience expectations.

And that’s what it all comes down to – Sherlock (Holmes) and the burden of expectations.

This may sound like the title of one of 56 short stories that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. But it is also the problem that has plagued the latter half of BBC’s Sherlock.

First things first: It surely can’t be easy on Moffat and Gatiss to consistently churn out record-breaking, 90-minute, canonically-driven, borderline-genius episodes. Maintaining the standard that they set so high with the first two successive seasons in 2010 and 2011, would be a task in itself.

Factor in that their two leads are now protagonists in popular Hollywood franchises and have further constraints on their time. Add to that, the fact that Moffat also helms another BBC show, Doctor Who. (In fact, Doctor Who and Sherlock rarely have a season releasing in the same year; in 2016, there was no new Doctor Who owing in part to Moffatt’s Sherlock commitments.)

Coming to the latest season in early 2017, the decks were already stacked against Moffat and Gatiss and they themselves admitted how hard it is to film new content, which would explain the three-year gap between seasons two and three and a similar one this time as well.

However, that doesn't explain the relatively bland season three we got in 2014, especially after the epic climax of season two. Then, the standalone episode, The Abominable Bride, in 2016 took it further downhill and seemed to be as drug-addled as the protagonist in the story. (It was so abominable, it wasn’t even referenced in the recap of the first episode of season 4) The recently concluded fourth season was a marked improvement over its predecessor, though still a target of extremely mixed reviews. Here's a lowdown.

The Six Thatchers was a downright patch-up job, a pedestrian exercise in how to salvage a show after a terrible string of story-shattering episodes while keeping fans content. The plot seemed too convenient, the reactions seemed too corny, and the big plot twist – Mary’s death while saving Sherlock – seemed to be too clumsy to come from the Moffat-Gatiss school of carefully calculated television.

The Lying Detective was much better cinematically, but the treatment of plot and characters was downright shoddy. The trivialisation of John’s grief and life as a widower was appalling, whatever the motivations. A 20-minute act of a trippy Sherlock and tricky Mrs Hudson coupled with some Doctor Strange-like visuals, all to ‘save’ John Watson – an adrenaline junkie who will be happy again if he can help Sherlock and solve a case – on instructions from his dead wife, was a terrible waste of screen time. The central case of Culverton Smith was wonderful source material and the reveal of the third Holmes sibling was shocking; it should have been matter enough to drive the story forward on its own, without the song-and-dance of high Sherlock.

The Final Problem, the best of the three episodes, was a wonderful episode by itself. It had all the elements of vintage Sherlock and practically salvaged this season. However, it wasn’t completely novel, the plot had had shades of The Great Game – the first season finale where James Moriarty sets Sherlock time-locked puzzles to solve while holding people hostage as leverage.

But that shouldn’t take away much from what was a remarkable episode – Sian Brooke as Eurus Holmes was exceptional, the storyline twisted and turned like classic Doylian books, the emotional quotient was at a peak, the plot twist was extraordinary, and the screenplay was worthy of more awards. Overall, it was the perfect swansong to a path-breaking TV show.

But it may have been a little too late.

Let’s put it this way: Season 4 was not as good as the first two seasons, but it was better than the train-wreck of a season 3 and absolute genius if compared to the 2016 standalone episode.

Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and, BBC got about to the incredibly ambitious task of revamping the iconic detective’s story by setting it in modern day London. Screengrab from YouTube

Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss and BBC got to the incredibly ambitious task of revamping the iconic detective’s story by setting it in modern day London. Screengrab from YouTube

And this brings us back to the title of this Sherlock story – the burden of expectations.

Can a show consistently deliver thrills like Sherlock did for the best part of four seasons? Can television be regularly revolutionised with never-seen-before gimmicks? Can the audience constantly be expected to go into overdrive when a cliffhanger of a finale shows people dying/killed?

How many times can one expect Moriarty to pop up to make the last episode interesting? How many times can top-notch dialogues delivered by excellent actors mask the failings of a plot? At what point do those flashy deduction scenes and fancy text-on-screen and flamboyant settings become seen-before? And most importantly, how much can you change the ethos of a show and its titular character?

BBC’s Sherlock has always been more about heart than the mind – as much as the protagonist may say otherwise.

A major grouse I have against the new direction the show took post his supposed resurrection is that in the last two seasons, a large part of Sherlock's gravitas has been lost to an attempt at comic relief.

Take the Sherlock-John reunion for instance; it was part sentimental, part insane, featuring punches, a mustache, a ticking bomb, some pranks, a kidnapping and attempted murder. An entire episode – 90 minutes of an already limited series – were dedicated (or lost) to establishing the friends-don't-be-angry-at-friends dynamic between the two leads.

If you delve in further, there was a similar problem with the second episode of the fourth season – a large part of the episode was devoted to establishing John and Sherlock’s relationship again after Mary's death and their estrangement, and it was largely comical. It involved a drug-induced hostage situation, Mrs Hudson crashing cars and an actual, public challenge to a serial killer, followed by a joyride with said killer.

This may just be the high expectations again, but the underlying emotions of the show, which were subtle enough to be commendable in the first two seasons, were lost in comic relief in the second two.

Another way to put it would be that the show has suddenly become more of the modern Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and less of the traditional Sherlock Holmes and John Watson (as we knew them). While this can be a natural character progression, it is certainly telling when your lead characters are altered to such an uncharacteristic extent.

Of course, this is not to say that Sherlock was realistic in the first two seasons, but it was genius bordering on realism, a willing suspension of disbelief if you please. Take A Scandal in Belgravia for example, the popular story with Irene Adler, Moriarty, romance, and terrorism thrown in the mix. It was an emotionally fraught episode, but the core of it was still the plot: the convoluted not convenient, well-planned and executed storyline, which left little scope for plotholes. The same, sadly, can’t be said for the other emotional episodes such as His Last Vow or The Six Thatchers, which were far too easily laid out to be a Doylian breadcrumb trail.

The defining characteristic of Sherlock – the show, the books, the films – has always been the attention to detail; the writing has been painstakingly elaborate, the characters have always been deeply etched out and the plot complexly unfolded. For the most part, the last two seasons of Sherlock failed to do this.

The usual Sherlock, was a crime-drama-thriller with ambiguous characters, emotional depth and dark humour. But lately Sherlock has become more comedy lesser crime, more acting lesser action and more caricature lesser content.

In a nutshell, call it our high expectations or the lower standards, but Sherlock has become more of a showpiece than a masterpiece.

Published Date: Jan 22, 2017 09:54 AM | Updated Date: Jan 22, 2017 09:56 AM