Thursday, 5 January 2017

My annual moan about Sherlock

I reckon that I always have a moan here about the TV series Sherlock whenever it returns and I am feeling an urge to whinge again, but this year I’ll cut it a bit of slack. After another episode featuring the usual mixture of clever dialogue, flashy direction and only vague hints of a story, I’ve come to the conclusion that the show hasn’t lost its way, after all. It’s just the same as it’s always been; it’s just that everything else on television has got a whole lot better.

When the show first started it was a breath of fresh air. TV detective shows were still trying to find the new Inspector Morse with their glum heroes battling inner demons and drink while listening to opera and solving routine mystery plots that went from A to B to C. I still enjoy those sorts of shows, but Sherlock showed that there was a different way with its story arcs and good yarns told in a fun way. As a result it created some must-see TV.

But that was seven years ago and now the viewer is spoilt for choice when it comes to the detective / thriller / mystery genre. Every show now has ambition to become the latest Internet chatroom sensation with eight part series constructed with compelling plots and all the narrative tricks to keep you tuning in to find out what the heck is going on.

In the last year shows like Marcella, which at the time I thought could well be the worst thing I’d ever watched, kept me interested to the end because the story was well-constructed, and I’ll probably watch series 2 while still wondering why. Even Paranoid, which probably was the worst thing I’ve ever seen, still kept me watching for several episodes before I had to admit I was wasting my time. The most recent DCI Banks, one of the few old-fashioned detective shows, even managed a compelling six episode arc story, and these are probably at the bottom of the pile as regards what’s now available.

Over the holiday period I binge-watched The Missing, Line of Duty and Happy Valley, and frankly they all far surpass Sherlock in every single aspect of story-telling.

Sherlock may pride itself on its clever hints of what’s to come, with details like Toby Jones’s face appearing on a poster, but plot points likes this, that once were great to spot, just don’t wash it any more. When compared to how The Missing deals with foreshadowing where a character will be happily pottering around their shop before a jump cut to the future reveals that they’ve had all their teeth knocked out. From then on every time that person is on the screen the tension is gut-wrenching as you wait to find out what hideous calamity will befall them. A face appearing on a poster just isn’t in the same league as regards building suspense.

Then there’s the matter of constructing a whole episode around killing off a main character, which in the old, pre-Sherlock days was always a big deal, except these days other shows do it so much better. Sherlock really can’t compete with Line of Duty for shocking plot twists where characters can get killed off no matter how important they are, and they stay dead. Jumping in front of a bullet is an uninspired and lazy cliché when compared to Tony Gates stepping in front of a lorry after his epic redemption, or DC Trotman getting thrown out of a window, or Lindsay Denton defiantly proclaiming her own murder scene as a forensic ground zero for the Big Bad and then cracking the case with her last dying finger twitch.

And then there's the clever dialogue in Sherlock that zings along so fast you miss more great lines than you hear, but which for all the craft just can’t compare with Happy Valley. In that show people talk and act like real people do and that draws you in to care about them as people so that when the hideous stuff happens you’re worried about them, rather than just sitting back and admiring the acting and writing talent on display but never once feeling that any of it matters.

So, yeah, these days Sherlock does as Sherlock does, but I find it hard to care about the rest of the series or whether it’ll ever come back. This week alone there are five detective shows starting up their new run, and sadly for me Sherlock is in fifth place by a big margin. I’m looking forward to giving No Offence a go even though I doubt it’s my sort of thing, Death in Paradise has better jokes, Endeavour has better characters, and Unforgotten is just light years better in every single capacity.

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