by Tora Chung
September 21, 2012
Like many, I grew up on Jeremy Brett’s brilliant portrayal of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes. And while I’ve seen various movies over the years trying to refresh the character (most recently starring Robert Downey, Jr.), I was skeptical at first when I heard BBC was developing a new series set in modern day London. Could they succeed at making a decidedly 19th century literary icon into a 21st century TV antihero?
My answer is an unreserved yes.
The name of the series immediately sets the tone. It’s not Holmes, but Sherlock, his first name, that takes center stage, cluing us in to his rock star (think Bono or Pink) or even superhero status. But this hero’s spidey senses are meticulous observation and methodical deduction.
The show’s tone and visual style borrow much from science fiction and music videos. Contrasting the gritty look of its streets, the establishing shots of London make it look like the inside of a snow globe, creating a tension between the reality of today’s London and a storybook land from another era. Here, like a magical key that can unlock any door, lightning speed logic can lead our hero to all the answers. The use of technology is less science fiction than science fact as most of us are used to smart phones and all sorts of devices in our daily lives. Unlike James Bond, whose infinitely cool and flashy toys are part of his enduring appeal, Sherlock’s greatest tool remains his intellect.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is more vulnerable and openly childlike than previous incarnations, making him more relatable for today’s generation. He’s an unlikely misanthrope with a heart—possibly suffering from a personality disorder or even Asperger's syndrome, unable to relate to others or understand emotional cues—yet we can’t help but suspect his inherent decency. He sees more than we do, yet less; examining the world through his microscopic lens, he has to be reminded and chastised by Watson to behave like a normal human being.
But Sherlock is not interested in normal. He delights in his enigmatic image, often heightening it to his advantage. When his sexuality is questioned and we fear his inexperience or possible asexuality is a point of vulnerability, he uses it to surprise his opponent. His mysterious past and ambiguous preferences make him unpredictable. He is a game player and knows full well that games are won not by mastering the rules but by unraveling the other player. The last man standing is the one who defies understanding.
The series appropriately begins with its main POV, Dr. Watson, who, ironically, is shown at first not as a doctor but as a patient. He thinks himself to be suffering from PTSD but Sherlock reveals to him his true ailment, one that he himself suffers from: boredom. Sherlock has found a kindred spirit and knows the best way to reel him in is to keep him guessing and never let him be bored.
Watson’s main role is to be the audience’s conduit. He reacts the way we would. As a blogger, he is the contemporary equivalent of a 19th century narrator. Like us, he tries to piece the stories together to not only solve each mystery but to understand the greatest mystery of all—Sherlock himself.
In the last aired episode (episode 3 of series 2), Sherlock is forced by his archenemy Moriarty to tell the world that he is a delusional fraud before leaping from a rooftop to his possible death. Watson, disoriented by a blow to the head, is unable to stop his friend and watches helplessly as he plummets to the ground. But is he dead? Who is he really? Did Watson ever know him at all? Sherlock is no longer the mystery solver, but overtly at the center of the mystery itself.
Like Watson, we keep trying to understand Sherlock. That’s what brings us back again and again. As long as Sherlock remains an enigma and always just out of our reach, we’ll be back.