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It's Elementary: BBC's "Sherlock Holmes"

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Industry | November 30, 2011 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Industry | November 30, 2011 |

I’ve never read the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and you can quiet your disdain and judgment. The same announcement in my home was followed quickly by a tome being dropped onto my desk, and an ominous intonation that problems should be fixed lest they become bigger problems.

My only exposure has been through the general cultural influence that the stories have had, and more specifically through watching “House” and suffering through a painful episode of the cartoon Sherlock that is set in the future. That was a tragically unnecessary series inflicted upon unsuspecting children. And like many before me, I had little desire at first to have anything to do with the BBC modernization of the tale. There are few things less necessary than “contemporary takes” as a general rule. Things that happened before the Internet are capable of being interesting in their own right. Get off of my lawn.

And then one notices that BBC’s “Sherlock Holmes” is Steven Moffat’s baby and Martin Freeman’s in the mix as well. Then one begins to suspect that there might be something worth checking out. And then you just so happen to be flipping channels Sunday night and stumble upon it on PBS and before you know it an hour and a half has passed and you are calling the pledge number on the screen promising that you will give them your credit card number if and only if they put the next damned episode on the screen right bloody now. And they don’t. Because they secretly hate public television and are going to make you watch “Antiques Roadshow” for daring to dream.

It has that quality of good television in which despite being half sleep when the show starts, you find yourself ninety minutes later wired and simultaneously feeling like no time has passed at all while also swearing that you just watched an entire season of television. It’s the sort of television show that makes your brain feel like smoking a cigarette afterward.

Of course “Sherlock Holmes” also has that very peculiar British problem of having seasons with less episodes than a homeless Eskimo has toes. Three. Sure, they’re ninety minutes long, so that comes out to 270 minutes or just shy of seven “hours” of American television, but you should know up front the ringer that the show puts you through. It sucks you in, and just as you realize that you’re sucked in, the “season” ends with a cliffhanger and they tell you it will be at least six months before you’re gifted with another three episodes. It’s like getting hooked on heroin but the only dealer in town only has three hits a year to sell you.

The show also is cleverly shot, something that I don’t normally notice, being mostly ignorant when it comes to the technical end of filming. For example, whenever a text message is received, rather than forcing the character to read it aloud, or cutting unnaturally to a zoomed in view of a hand holding a phone just at an angle where we can read the text message, the message is simply overlaid onto the screen like text during the credits, allowing the scene to continue seamlessly. It’s a trivially simple effect, but it is very effective.

But what is most effective is the tight story telling combined with some truly great acting. Benedict Cumberbatch is superb as a Sherlock who is described as a “high-functioning sociopath,” a man of almost supernatural intelligence and reasoning, who simply doesn’t understand normal human interaction. Martin Freeman plays a wonderful Watson, a capable and dangerous man who is nonetheless broken in his own ways.

It’s telling that the show dares to follow Sherlock’s detachment and sociopathy to its natural conclusion, truly making Sherlock a frightening man in a way. One is struck by just how much “House” falls short as a take on the character with this simple shortcoming. House wishes that he was a sociopath so that he’d have an excuse to be the way he feels like being. The reality is that he’s just a dick. Sherlock on the other hand is more like Dexter if he’d decided to track killers instead of becoming one himself.

There’s an underlying notion that comes out of Crime and Punishment, this idea that there are men who really are more than men, who can see the connections and working of society so well, that they can do almost anything, plucking and pulling at the right strings. Raskolnikov imagined that because he was so superior, he could murder, never seeing until after the fact that it was doing so that made his presumptions of superiority so laughable. This idea is repeatedly returned to in “Sherlock,” first broached when the police argue that one of these days they’re going to find a body and Sherlock will be the one who did it rather than the one who solves it. And Moriarty, gleeful puppet master who has arranged a thousand murders and crimes without leaving a trace. It’s not even fair to say that Moriarty is the dark foil to Sherlock, but that they really are only a hair apart.

This is a question that is left mostly hanging, unasked but implied. Why hasn’t Sherlock become Moriarty? There isn’t an easy answer, no suggestion that it’s his connection to people that keeps him grounded, or that he had a father who put him on the right path, or even a utilitarian argument that it just wouldn’t be worth the minute risk. Sherlock knows that he could get away with anything, and yet he hasn’t crossed that line, yet.

The second series is due to air in early 2012 in Britain and sometime in May in America on PBS.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

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Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.