Saturday, 21 January 2012

A bit of a whinge about Sherlock: series 2

Over the New Year period I was looking forward to only two tv programs: the return of Sherlock with excitement and the arrival of Endeavour with dread. As it turned out, the former disappointed and the latter exceeded my expectations. I'll talk about the Inspector Morse prequel tomorrow, but today I'll have a whinge about Sherlock: series two.

Sherlock is the most universally acclaimed popular drama the BBC has made in decades. It's hard to find any criticism, which makes me wonder what I was missing as although I enjoyed the latest episodes, I preferred the first series. I've concluded that I'm at fault in failing to accept it's become a fantasy romp rather than being the detective yarn I want it to be. It's the tv equivalent of the blockbuster movie where you're supposed to sit back with a beer in hand and accept that nothing will make sense, but don’t worry because it's not meant to.

My problem is that it didn’t start that way. I'm not a big Sherlock Holmes fan, although I've read many of the stories and watched plenty of adaptations. My favourite version is Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes, so I was prepared for liberties to be taken and, as it turned out, the pilot episode was one of the best I've ever seen. I accepted Watson in minutes and Sherlock in seconds. The story featured a perfect escapist detective yarn in which Sherlock solves a complex crime using brilliant deduction. At the end of the pilot I'd decided I'd found my new favourite tv series and although the next two episodes weren't as good, they were still entertaining. The middle episode was criticised for being weakly plotted, which wasn't deserved, and the third episode built nicely until Moriarty's audience splitting arrival.

I was in the camp that thought Moriarty didn't work, but the cliffhanger was fun and I eagerly awaited series two. Sadly, the new series got off on the wrong foot with a poor solution to the cliffhanger. If Sherlock is so clever, he should have resolved his dilemma rather than relying on the copout of the villain giving up because it's not the end of the story yet. With an eighteen-month gap between series, viewers deserve better than a feeble joke solution.

That start set the tone for the rest of an episode that featured lots of running around, quick-fire dialogue and a nonsense story. There certainly wasn't an interesting crime for Sherlock to solve and he wasn't interested in the macguffin of stolen compromising pictures. Arch-enemy Irene Adler was supposed to provide Sherlock with a worthy adversary, except she came over as an ordinary femme fatale. The nude scene came over as being put in to make Daily Mail readers froth at the mouth, which it did when the paper provided full-page pictures. But frankly a brilliant detective who can work out your dog's name from the shape of your shirt buttons should have gathered information from Adler's skin. Worse, that set up the rule that the sight of skin fools Sherlock. That made me spend the rest of the series noting every time Sherlock picked up a clue from someone's skin and add further weight to the theory that Adler was a weak male fantasy figure and not a strong independent woman.

I hated the ending that stole Adler's independence meaning that a story built around the chemistry between Sherlock and Adler didn't work for me as they didn’t have any. In fact the scenes with Sherlock and pathologist Molly were more believable and interesting. The actress who plays Molly delivers adoration and hurt, strength and disappointment without uttering a word while Sherlock with his posture alone both acknowledges that he knows what he means to her while also denying it. If there is a will they / won’t they element in future Sherlock stories, it'll work better with Molly than with Adler as it involves a situation we can all relate to. And while I'm on the chemistry subject, I grew bored of the Sherlock and Watson being a gay couple joke in the pilot episode and it's now become annoying.

I hoped for better things from the second tale concerning a certain hound, which like most people is my favourite Sherlock tale. The writer's recent excellent documentary series on horror films showed he has the same tastes and opinions as I have about film horror and so I expected an interesting take on the tale. But I struggled to watch the episode all the way through. I welcomed the slower pace that let the story breathe, but the tale was pure hokum until the even more hokum solution involving bad CGI and hammy acting. And there were too many filler scenes. There was a tedious trip around a military unit put in to justify the expense of the big set. There was wandering around in the dark being scared, which was less interesting than most scenes involving people wandering around in the dark being scared. And the scene where Watson hides in a cage while Sherlock enjoys watching him be frightened ruined the sense of their growing friendship.

The worst padding came when the story ignored the rules the show had set for Sherlock so that it could avoid him fingering a culprit who was so obvious he might as well have 'I did it' written on his forehead. One moment Sherlock's proving he's in control by working out that someone missed their train this morning from the number of sugars they put in their tea, and the next moment he can't find out where someone keeps the sugar in their kitchen, something everybody can do. And I particularly hated Sherlock's mind palace where he waves his arms around. The pilot episode superbly depicted how Sherlock's deductive mind works with graphics and clever direction, but every subsequent episode has depicted a different technique, none of which work as well. Oh and the less said about Russell Tovey's acting and accent the better.

I therefore put all my hopes into the final episode and, in the sections where Moriarty wasn't around, it worked well, but every time he appeared all credibility went with him. I usually like to see actors try something different, but that performance was too different. I never once believed in Moriarty, as I didn't know if he was deranged, or a man pretending to be deranged, so the concept that he was what Sherlock could become if he turned to the dark side was lost. And the idea of the most dangerous man in the world wandering around in full view doesn’t work. If he was that dangerous, the secret services would have made him disappear a long time ago.

As a result the ending fell flat, although I was pleased that Net pundits worked out how Sherlock could cheat death before the credits rolled. Of course, based on the resolution to series one, the actual answer will be sillier, and I have no great hope that next time Sherlock will be set in the real world. It's probably just me but I'd like him to solve interesting crimes that have defied resolution while the coppers look on in amazement and his brother acts amusingly in the background, as happened in the first series. Instead we have power games where nothing matters because nothing is real and Sherlock might as well admit he owns a sonic screwdriver while Moriarty should admit he's a barking mad regeneration of the Master.

On a more mundane level the series suffers from a classic middle act problem. This problem often affects shows featuring a genius, as writers struggle to make plots work with characters who are ten steps ahead of their adversaries. The result is that each episode since the pilot has been half an hour too long. Trimmed down to an hour, each episode would have been better. Sherlock can solve ten unsolvable cases before breakfast while completing today's Times crossword using only clues from yesterday's crossword, so it's hard to rack up the tension in the middle act. So the stories either forget he's brilliant, or wander off track, or add in yet another story, or add in yet another layer that contradicts everything that went before.

This final point also creates an odd tone. In the first series my only main criticism was that the tales didn’t connect well so that the middle episode didn't feel as if it followed the first. This is more striking this time round where the tales link together in only superficial ways and therefore miss opportunities. For example the groundwork for the final episode premise that the police begin to distrust Sherlock could have been laid throughout the series, but instead it happens for reasons that weren't any more valid than the numerous other occasions when they could have doubted him.

Anyhow, now that I've got that off my chest I'll stop whinging and say again that I enjoyed the series, even if it doesn't sound like it. I wish more programs like Sherlock were made, with care and intelligence and which are good enough to be worth criticising. The series features superb set pieces, fun exchanges of dialogue, the production values are glossy, and the leads are perfect. I love the banter between Sherlock and Watson, and between the other regulars, while the moments when Sherlock works out how many children someone has from the colour of their bootlaces are always brilliant. But somehow the sum of the many good parts is less than it ought to be and I wish I'd enjoyed it even more.

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