I was at my mother’s a couple of weeks ago. She has cable. I stay up quite a bit later than my folks do, probably because I’m stuck on west coast time, and therefore I had many spare hours to commune with the great beast Television. It was like heaven, you guys. My mom had recorded almost all of the first season of Elementary and saved them for my visit. Isn’t that sweet? She knows me so well. So I watched all the episodes she had, and they were awesome. How could they not be?
I’m a big fan of Sherlock Holmes. There have been a bunch of newish Sherlocks in recent years. I won’t compare and contrast them, because that’s the laziest kind of analysis (incidentally, also how I got through college), but I’ll tell you what I like about them. Because they’re different in really interesting ways.
This newest incarnation is great, if a little more predictable in a police-procedural-on-CBS kind of way. Jonny Lee Miller does a fantastic job of playing the role somewhat twitchier than others have. But that may be because they’ve turned him into a former heroin addict and I loved Miller in Trainspotting and I’m just seeing what I want to see. (Fun fact: in Trainspotting, Miller’s character was obsessed with James Bond. His real grandfather played M in the first few Bond films.) I also love that they genderflipped Watson, and Lucy Liu rocks it. By the end of the season she’s a full-on badass. I was honestly surprised at how much I enjoyed the show. You know how some things get in your head and you can’t stop thinking about them? When you want to watch/hear/read it again, immediately? For me, that’s the mark of good storytelling. Miller’s Holmes is a little dark, actually. Might be the heroin again, but I think it’s actually in how he plays angry and psychologically fucked up as very, very quiet. Simmering, perhaps. Makes him seem a little dangerous. Which, obviously, he is. He always has been, but Miller’s got a good face for it.
The Robert Downey, Jr. movies are great. I love how they didn’t pretty up Victorian London, made it seem dark and gritty and gross and somehow unfinished. Because that’s exactly what it was. Jude Law’s Watson is the perfect counterpoint to Downey’s Holmes. Downey does mad genius really well. He’s almost just a touch Hunter S. Thompson-ish, isn’t he? Also, they’re both so fucking pretty. And at the time I thought: really, Warner Brothers? You’re so desperate for a reboot that you’re pillaging the dusty old books on your shelf now? Really? But I was pleasantly surprised. The film and its sequel were equally good, which is something I very rarely say. Even their Moriarty was awesome (Jared Harris is so talented and odd, I’d watch him play pretty much anyone). While I think these are the most beautifully filmed of the recent Sherlock stories, they also read like big summer blockbuster action movies. A lot of running, with many a one-liner to break up the dire. Not so cerebral, but fun, for sure.
Meanwhile, over at the BBC, Steven Moffat was taking a different tack. Here’s the thing about the BBC: they do things properly. They’ll give a show a chance, a whole season to get its feet under it instead of just a pilot. They don’t pander to advertisers. The Brits are much less touchy about cursing and sex than Americans, so if it’s on after a certain hour of the evening and your kids see it? It’s your own fault. They’re just not so precious about television over there. It’s merely entertainment and not expected to be the focus of the family’s whole life together. Which is as it should be. So I heard “Moffat and BBC” and was excited. Then I heard “modernization” and was less excited. Modernizing any old story is so often done hamfistedly that I’m turned off by the idea and dismiss it out of hand. Yeah, that’s shitty of me. But whatever. I have a literature degree. We like old things. Cut me some slack. (This is way before I watched Elementary, by the way, so you can go ahead and apply this same exasperation to that viewing experience, but mitigated by my enjoyment of Sherlock.)
So I watched Sherlock and I think I burned out a few neurons, it was so good. I watched six episodes on Netflix and then it was over and I burned out a few more neurons with rage. What?!? What the hell is going on? It’s that goddamned BBC, doing things properly. A season of Sherlock is only three episodes. Which is like the most evil, malignant, underhanded cliffhanger mindfuck of all time. But it also means that the production value is outstanding. Instead of spreading the money thin over six or twelve or twenty normal episodes, they can make three short movies per season and make them look amazing. And Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock well. I was genuinely impressed. He’s not as lovable as Downey, colder and more cutthroat. Especially because his face is weird. I’m not sure what it is, but there’s just something off about him. Like when you see someone who normally wears glasses without their glasses and there’s something important missing but you can’t put your finger on it. His soul, perhaps. Also, the voice. It’s too deep and mellifluous for that face. (But I submit that if at any point we need to meet Sherlock’s father, we petition to get Alan Rickman for the role. Yeah? Who’s with me?) Martin Freeman’s Watson is an excellent match for Cumberbatch. He’s a little bumbling, but it works. And he’s hilarious. I don’t want to talk about the horrible Hitchhiker’s Guide movie that came out a few years back, because it breaks my heart, but Freeman did a great job with Arthur Dent in that piece of shit.
Three new takes on a character who is 125 years old, all coming out within five years of each other. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking about Sherlock Holmes as a prominent figure in our cultural topography. There are few characters who are so well-known despite people having not read/seen the source material: Darth Vader, Captain Kirk, Romeo and Juliet, Jesus Christ. But Sherlock seems different, somehow. Not as narrow an audience, maybe. How did he go from Victorian British short stories to twenty-first century multi-media phenomenon? With nothing but Basil Rathbone to tide us over in the interim? I think it’s less about him and more about us. This is slightly off-topic, but just follow me: recently I was listening to an interview with Joss Whedon about the Avengers (and Avengers 2 – squee!). He was talking about the tension he created between Iron Man and Captain America. Basically, Cap left a culture that embraced him as their ultimate type of hero and awoke to a culture that didn’t seem to need him anymore. Ours is now a culture that respects and expects intelligence and innovation in their leaders and role models and superheroes (see also: the Hulk, Batman, and Doctor Manhattan, if I may mix my comic brands). Thus, Tony Stark is the man of the hour and Steve Rogers has to prove himself all over again. And, the obvious Robert Downey, Jr. connection aside, I think that’s precisely why there’s been a resurgence in Sherlockianism these past few years. This sudden acceptance of intellectual superiority. While people are getting dumber, our heroes are getting smarter. Weird, that. Makes you wonder what actually sets the bar for “smart,” doesn’t it?
When I was a little kid, my parents put great value in intelligence. I never heard “you’re so pretty” or “you’re so talented.” It was always “you’re so smart.” (Point of interest: my personal Tyler Durden said to me recently: “Jeez, you tell that story all the time.” Yes, yes I do. Because it’s a massive part of my flawed psychological construction therefore it’s very fucking relevant. You’re a shrink, Durden, work it out.) So I’ve always operated under the assumption that smart is all I have to work with. Which isn’t necessarily true, I’ve learned. I’m hilarious, as well. Point is, when I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books as a child I loooooved them. Agatha Christie’s, too, to a lesser extent. Her writing style doesn’t appeal quite so much to me, but her puzzles are great. I like that we’re at a place in our culture where a character like Sherlock Holmes can come to the forefront. Our recent obsession with crime-fighting certainly helps (thanks, CSI). It makes sense, doesn’t it? The perfect cultural storm, so to speak, where intelligence is seen as paramount. Scientists and mathematicians and every flavor of geniuses are all over tv and movies, being the hero, saving the day. And in the mainstream, too, not just on the fringes or in the niches. I love that. It’s about fucking time.
Now if we could just get rid of reality shows, the world would be a better place.