Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sherlock Shrugged: Sherlock Season 2 (2012)

It's all in the hat!
 I was a little slow to warm to the new Sherlock television series in Season One.  I loved the first episode, "A Study in Pink," but the Chinese gang antics of the second, "The Blind Banker," seemed like something more out of a 1920s Edgar Wallace or Sax Rohmer thriller and the third episode, "The Great Game," was marred for me by what I thought was a truly horrendous reimagining of Master-Criminal and Arch-Fiend "Jim" Moriarty.

Watching the first season again on DVD reconciled me to episode two (after all, if Basil Rathbone's Holmes battled the Nazis, why can't Benedict Cumberbatch duke it out with Chinese gangs?), but I still hated this modern incarnation of Moriarty, who seemed a miscalculation in every way.  Obviously intended as scary-mad in the Heath Ledger Joker fashion, to me he was more goofy-sad.

However, Season Two has won me over completely.  I loved the controversial reconceptualization of Irene Adler in "A Scandal in Belgravia," though I know others have dissented, some on the grounds of morality (she's now a lesbian--or bisexual?--dominatrix, oh my!), more on account of seeing her as anti-feminist.  I don't see this myself.  The complaints of both groups seem rooted in the notion that the highly sexualized of Adler is "wrong." 

The Woman
In response I would say that certainly in this day and age--when, for example, American congressmen send pictures of themselves over the internet in states of undress in attempts to sexually entice young women--surely filmmakers must come up with ever more shocking scenarios  than in past days in order to credibly evoke "scandal."  Dominatrix activities would seem to fill the bill in this regard!

Arthur Conan Doyle's Irene Adler was, after all, what was then known as an "adventuress"--a term that definitely had a sexual connotation.

As for the feminist critique that Adler's ultimately bested by Holmes--well, so is everyone else, or haven't you noticed?  Even Moriarty (more on him later).  At least she really knocked him for a loop, so to speak.  As for Adler being revealed as being genuinely attracted to Holmes (the passcode business), well, there's quite a bit of interest in her for his part as well.  One of the really teasing things about this episode was the relationship between these two brilliant but surely rather damaged individuals.

This brings me to my larger point about this series, one I'm not sure has been much discussed amidst all the hyperventilating over Irene Adler's sexuality.  That is the portrayal in Sherlock of the relationship between the Great Detective and society.  To me, this matter really came to the fore in Season Two.

Jeremy Brett
Without a doubt Benedict Cumberbatch's Sherlock is a compelling portrait of a genius.  No surprise here. Cumberbatch is a truly great actor and Sherlock Holmes is nothing if not a genius.  While Dr. Watson has been (wrongly) portrayed in film as a fool (Nigel Bruce), Sherlock has always been, barring in parodies like the movie Without a Clue, played as an absolute genius, the Greatest among Great Detectives.

Yet Cumberbatch's Sherlock, following in the footsteps of Jeremy Brett's portrayal, is also a supremely odd individual.  Basil Rathbone's Sherlock may have been somewhat eccentric, but Brett's and Cumberbatch's versions disconcertingly often seem to occupy some unsettling borderland of sociopathy.

In the modern series Sherlock Holmes is as lacking in social skills as poor, downcast Molly Hooper, the shy medical examiner so hopelessly smitten with the Great Detective; it's just that he has an overweening self-confidence that she utterly lacks, one which enables him to override societal conventions of which he's often at best only dimly aware (and usually contemptuous of when aware of them).  Yet these conventions remain potentially deadly pitfalls for Holmes.  It's Dr. Watson--so superbly portrayed by Martin Freeman--who, with his "average brain," has to try to act as Holmes' social guide (God knows the series' Mrs. Hudson is too ditzy to do it), in order, essentially, to prevent Holmes from destroying himself.  Watson, in short, has to teach Holmes how to minimally accommodate "the group" so that Holmes can survive within society.

Yup, Moriarty's mad all right!
But there be method in this madness
No wonder Holmes is attracted to Irene Adler, he must see so much of himself in her!  But there is a far more sociopathic genius than Holmes or Adler: the aforementioned Jim Moriarty.  As stated above I hated Andrew Scott as Moriarty in Season One; but in Season Two I thought he was splendid.  This Moriarty truly was scary-mad.  And his devilish master plot against Holmes-- depicted in the clevery titled "The Reichenbach Fall"--was fascinating.

Moriarty figured out how to turn society against its repeated rescuer, Sherlock Holmes.  Moriarty understood that all the mediocrities in the police (Rupert Graves' rather winning Lestrade is the only sympathetic policeman in the series; he's the one copper intelligent enough to know that he's not intelligent enough) don't like depending on an egregiously obnoxious super sleuth to perform the feats they can't accomplish on their own.

One surmises that the cops would rather not solve cases at all than to have to depend on Holmes to solve them (I'm reminded of the transfer scene of the provokingly efficient PC Angel in the brilliant police comedy film Hot Fuzz).  To be sure, it doesn't help that Holmes is so completely lacking in people skills!  Add into this mix a crass and stupid press that delights in the personal destruction of "heroes" and celebrities.  How comforting and reassuring for them all to believe that the Great Detective was a fraud all along!

Don't worry, John--he''ll be back next season!
Moriarty's plan almost worked.  While he failed to kill Holmes, he destroyed Holmes' reputation.  Holmes is in hiding, while Watson is in mourning (and back in therapy).  In Season 3 will Holmes, with Watson's aid, be able to reconcile with society?  Will society realize that it desperately needs Holmes?  I think it should prove quite interesting to see.

Crime writer and critic Julian Symons argued that modern society was incompatible with the idea of the Great Detective, an uber-individual who, whether donned in a deerstalker or a top hat (or even hatless), disregards rules and solves crime completely on his/her own terms.  Yet, Symons notwithstanding, the Great Detective is still with us a dozen years into this new century, whether that individual is named Adrian Monk or Patrick Jane or Sherlock Holmes (Holmes apparently is immortal). Besides being terrifically entertaining, Sherlock more than any other series I know of is a thought-provoking exploration of the concept of the Great Detective in our modern age.  I applaud the series for this.


  1. I really enjoyed reading your ruminations on Holmes in his many guises. Growing up, I read all the Holmes stories but never really connected with him. (He's not an easy character to love.) I was all about Agatha Christie - ust like in the early Sixties, you were either Beatles or Stones. I didn't dislike the Stones, and I didn't dislike Conan Doyle's stories. But I never loved them.

    I think that's why I've enjoyed the Holmes TV series so much, even though it deviates wildly from the original stories. (I loved the new Irene Adler, too.) Because I didn't love the stories to begin with, I have no investment in them. I like the new Sherlock Holmes movies, too.

    On the other hand, I've had issues with a LOT of Agatha Christie reenactments. (Don't get me started on the televised version of CARDS ON THE TABLE, where the ending was changed completely.) I CARE about those stories. David Suchet is fabulous as Poirot, and Joan Hickson came close to my idea of Miss Marple. But it drives me insane when screenwriters rewrite Christie.

    Thanks to Laurie R. King's Mary Russell books, I've recently begun to like Sherlock Holmes a bit more than I used to. She made him human, so now I can relate.

    Anyway, sorry for the rambling comment. Loved your blog!

  2. Thanks for the comment and I am glad you enjoy the blog.

    I read Christie even before I read Conan Doyle so am certainly attached to Christie! I think Joan Hickson was the perfect Marple and don't much like the new Marple adaptions. And, like you, I have issues when they make deep changes in the books.

    I think the Sherlock series has been really smart in the way it has updated the Sherlock "mythos." I loved the stories and I love the series too.

    Glad you like the new Irene Adler, I did too. Not easily forgotten! I was glad Molly got to play a bigger role too--I'm expecting big things from Molly in Season 3.

  3. Only tangentially about Sherlock Holmes... For me, some of the best Christie adaptations were the ones made in the 80s in the States. They were updated seamlessly to the "present" - see Sparkling Cyanide. Maybe this is the way to go, instead of weighing them down with period detail. Gore Vidal said he reread Christie for the characters. So do I - and for her wit and social observation.

  4. Great post about Sherlock. I loved the new series, I thought the central peerformances were terrific, the scripts witty & clever & you don't have to know the stories to enjoy the series. I've read the stories many times but a friend hadn't read any Doyle & he loved the series as well. Can't wait for Series 3.

  5. Hi Lyn,

    Yes, I hate to wait nearly a year to see how it all turns out! Great series. I recently saw Cumberbatch as the Creature in the filmed version of the British National Theatre performance of Frankenstein and was bowled over. Cumberbatch is really a dominating presence. And Freeman really scores as Watson. I look forward to seeing the two of them interact as well in The Hobbit.

  6. Richmonde,

    Gore Vidal and you are definitely right about Christie. She often has keen social observation. A much better writer than snooty critics admit!