My disenchantment with BBC's Sherlock: Will it recover from The Six Thatchers?
BBC's Sherlock has turned into a James Bond-Jason Bourne-esque thriller, eschewing mystery for assassins, shootouts and swimming pool brawls
I have a confession to make.
I haven't enjoyed an episode of BBC's Sherlock in years.
Sure, I looked forward to the series returning after a three-year hiatus. Catching up with Sherlock, John, Mrs Hudson, Mycroft and Molly. Heck, I even missed Greg (that's inspector Lestrade to you non-Sherlock fans). But then as those oh-so-familiar opening credits began to roll, I asked myself: Has Sherlock “Jumped The Shark?” And as if the universe was playing a cruel trick, the first episode of season 4 opened with the shot of an aquarium, a glass tank and one mean looking shark. As Homer Simpson would say: Doh!
I don't remember the first time I picked up a Sherlock Holmes novel. And yet I can't remember ever not knowing who Sherlock Holmes was. To me, he was a superhero. Of course, the trick is that he wasn’t. He didn't have any powers, really, save for the fact that he 'observed' while the rest of us merely saw. He solved his problems with brain, not brawn (Although he was more than handy with a riding crop and with his fists, and if all failed, a crack shot with a pistol).
When I was done devouring every Conan Doyle tale of Messrs Holmes and Watson, I started over. Soon, I discovered a 1984 TV show called The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, which starred the incomparable Jeremy Brett, whose portrayal of Holmes is widely regarded as the greatest ever in stage or film.
No one had, or ever would bring to life the ‘cold, calculating machine’ that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle described quite like Jeremy Brett, who’d had a distinguished career, sharing the screen with Sir Laurence Olivier in The Merchant of Venice and Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady.
You could see his Holmes absorb every detail, sponge-like, behind steely eyes. Working out every possible permutation. He was the apex predator. Silent. Deadly. He lived and breathed Holmes. It was exhilarating to watch. And just as sad to learn that the role ended up defining him and ultimately, some believe, destroying him.
By now, I was a Sherlock fanatic. Around this time, the character was free of copyright — and thus fertile ground for authors and filmmakers. I read and watched anything I could get my hands on — the House of Silk, a novel authorised by the estate of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (and many lackluster unauthorized ones), the Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone versions of Holmes, CBS’s Elementary, two disappointing Robert Downey Junior movies — even the medical drama House, whose creator admitted that it was basically Sherlock Holmes wandering about a hospital, fighting germs instead of British baddies.
But nothing ever recreated the magic of Doyle’s work, or lived up to Brett’s magnetic performance. I was left with nowhere to turn for my seven-per-cent solution. Enter BBC’s Sherlock in 2010, produced by the suitably (and not very humbly) named Masterpiece Theatre, the delightfully named Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock and a pitch perfect Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson.
My Jerry Maguire ‘you had me at hello’ moment came when I saw this iteration of Sherlock whipping a corpse and being blithely unaware of the affections of the lovely Molly Hooper. The exchange went thus:
Molly: I was wondering if you’d like to have coffee…
Sherlock: Black, two sugars, please. I’ll be upstairs [exits]
Molly: Okay [to herself]
But perhaps the greatest gift the creators of Sherlock gave the viewers, was an insight into the detective’s mind — showing how he absorbed vast quantities of information and how he processed it. The solution: overlaying the text on the screen. Simple. Brilliant. The final episode introduced Sherlock’s greatest nemesis, Moriarty, and closed with a Mexican stand-off. Viewers across the globe were left salivating for more.
The second series turned up the heat with the introduction of Irene Adler. AKA The Woman. The only person, according to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself, to have played the game with Sherlock and made a proper fool out of him. Just as smart as Sherlock and lacking even the sliver of moral decency he possessed.
However, this Adler suffered defeat at the hands of Sherlock and reverted to a damsel in distress, somewhat undermining the heart of the character. Looking back, it was the first sign that the show was beginning to go off the rails.
But most viewers shrugged it off, thanks to a fun adaptation of the classic The Hound of the Baskervilles and a heart-stopping The Final Problem, which saw (spoiler alert!) Moriarty blow his own brains out and Sherlock plunge to his death and bleed out on the sidewalk in front of a helpless Watson. Of course, we knew Sherlock would be back. The question wasn’t when, but how. It became the question. How did Sherlock cheat death?
By now, the fan base was rabid. Cumberbatch was well on his way to becoming a global superstar, and Freeman was becoming a familiar face through The Hobbit trilogy, Fargo and Captain America: Civil War. The stars seemed to be aligned — BBC’s Sherlock would go down as an all-time classic, like The Sopranos, or The Wire or Full House (just kidding folks). What we didn’t know is that Sherlock’s fall would last longer than the time it took for him to perform a feat of resurrection.
Alarm bells began going off when the creators promised a definitive answer as to how Sherlock survived and didn’t deliver. The first episode of season 3 entitled The Empty Hearse seemed to relish mocking Sherlock’s fans and their fervour, seemingly compiling the most outlandish theories from the internet and presenting a number of possible scenarios. It was, at best, an odd move and at worst, downright condescending. Still, the show had never been more popular and it seemed like a solid if uninspiring return, confirmed by a wedding-themed second episode.
The first obvious misstep was in the series finale of episode 3, entitled The Last Vow. The villain of the season was revealed to be Charles Augustus Magnussen, a newspaper magnate who identifies the weaknesses of powerful people and revels in making them bend to his will. After Moriarty, it was weak tea. And after Sherlock was outwitted he chose to (spoiler alert!) shoot his foe dead rather than use his brain to solve his problem. For the first time, I found myself thinking: That’s not Sherlock Holmes. Then the specter of Moriarty returned from beyond the grave to taunt Sherlock. “Miss me?” he asked. The answer was yes — but it seemed like a desperate ‘look at me’ move on the part of the show and not a carefully plotted story arc.
And when I recently re-watched the entire series on Netflix to brush up for season 4, season 3 stood out as the most uneven of the lot — which is a nice way of saying it wasn’t any good. The shadow of Moriarty hung over the season. Had they killed him off too soon? Would they be able to redeem themselves? And then the first episode of season 4 dropped into our laps. Cue the shark.
The show began by letting Sherlock off the hook for Magnussen’s death by altering the CCTV footage, fired off a series of mysteries that Sherlock disposed of in double-time and introduced John and Mary’s baby. The best part of the show was Sherlock dealing with a mysterious death when he got implausibly sidetracked by a far less interesting case.
From there the show turned into a James Bond-Jason Bourne-esque thriller, eschewing mystery for assassins, shootouts and swimming pool brawls – gone were any actual deductions or solving of crimes, god forbid — it ended with Mary, literally jumping in front of a bullet for her psychopathic high-functioning sociopath of a friend. Erm, Mary. Aren’t you forgetting something? Oh that’s right, your baby! That a mother’s impulse to live for her child would be overcome by the need to save a friend seemed so damn forced and implausible.
And once again, a woman was reduced to a mere plot device to get back to the heart of the story: two lads solving crimes. But wait, John was mad at Sherlock. Again. This time, for not keeping his vow to protect his family. He actually said: “You swore a vow.” People don’t actually talk like that. Badly written television characters talk like that.
It ended with that old trope: a video of Mary, recorded before her death, pleading with Sherlock to save John. And then it ended, not with a bang, but a whimper. There are still two episodes to go. Who knows, maybe they can turn things around. I’ll be more than delighted to eat my words. Meanwhile, I think I’ll pick up one of Conan Doyle’s stories or relive Brett’s tour de force performance. But for now, the sharks are circling Sherlock. And they’re starving.
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