Saturday, February 8, 2014

Binge-watching Sherlock

Jennifer and I recently completed a bit of binge TV viewing. Normally, neither of us is that into television. Now and then we catch an episode of Modern Family but the last TV show we watched with regularity was Fringe.  That series ended a little over a year ago.  Instead of watching TV we read, address hobbies, tend to our house and property, listen to music, watch movies, and explore on our iPads.

In January I heard the BBC series Sherlock praised by a couple of people at work in separate conversations over the period of a few days.  That caused me to take note but I didn't really act on it until, quite by accident (or so it seemed), I found a documentary in the PBS App on my iPad about the Sherlock series - the third set of episodes was about to be broadcast on that network.  The documentary was part-promotion of the series, part-history of the "Sherlock Holmes" phenomenon.  Did you know that no other fictional character in the world has been more portrayed in films, TV shows, and theater productions than Sherlock Holmes?  The documentary is filled with interesting tidbits like that.  I watched it one evening while lying in bed and decided it was worthy of further investigation, so to speak.

At any rate, it was the dead of an exceptionally cold winter and things were, frankly, a bit dull around our place so I asked Jennifer if she'd be interested in checking out the show on Netflix.  She agreed and we watched the first two seasons (or "series" as they say in the UK) over the course of about ten days.  That isn't as much TV as it sounds because each season of Sherlock comes in three 90-minute episodes.  A fairly wimpy amount of television as binge-watching goes, an investment of 9 hours, but that's OK with me.  Did I mention I'm not that in to TV?

Sherlock is wonderfully entertaining.  A great mix of mystery and comedy, debauchery and ambiguity, rich in eccentric character development, bizarre stories, with plenty of action and puzzles for the brain.  The scripts are cleverly written to integrate the original elements of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories with the 21st century.  Dr. John Watson was a solider in the Second Anglo-Afghan War, for example.  So, he has just returned from service in present Afghan War in the TV series. Holmes has an attraction for Irene Adler as "The Woman" - there's an episode devoted to that.  Adler is a dominatrix in that particular episode.  Nice touch. 

In fact everything in all the episodes is based upon Doyle’s original text.  All of it is just pushed forward into our contemporary culture. Holmes and Watson do a lot of texting. Watson writes a blog about their adventures.  Subtle changes seem appropriate - like altering the original Holmes character’s need for a seven percent solution of cocaine during periods of intense boredom into a bad nicotine habit in the series.  

The ultimate Holmes adversary, Moriarty, plays a big part in the series as well, of course.  Solving one strange crime after another would get old pretty quickly without some sort of mastermind out there matching wits with Holmes and threatening civilization as we know it.

Sherlock is an extremely trendy show, an internet phenomenon, in fact.  It has taken on a life of its own and has become globally popular for what is, in fact, nothing more than a secondary project for everyone involved.  The main writers and producers are all involved with the Doctor Who program, which I stopped watching after my college days, but remains the longest running TV show in history.  Sherlock is played by Benedict Cumberbatch who has been in the second Star Trek movie among other projects.  Watson is portrayed by Martin Freeman of The Hobbit fame.

In fact, everyone was so busy doing their other projects that an extended period of time elapsed between the second series and the third series. They make a big deal about a "two year passage of time" in the first episode of the third season.  So, I guess Jennifer and I were fortunate.  The karma flowed perfectly for us.  We got interested in the show, binged it, and then enjoyed the PBS broadcast of the third season without missing a beat.  The only drawback is that the show is so satisfying that nine total episodes is not nearly enough.  We want more.  But Grey's Anatomy it is not.  We have to be patient for whenever whatever comes next.

But why is the show so enthralling for its fans? First of all, there is the healthy mix of the original turn of the twentieth century Doyle material with the turn of the twenty-first century material. Secondly, the style of the program features an interesting visual style.  Every time someone reads a text message on their phones you see the message pop up juxtaposed somewhere near the phone on the TV screen - and then it moves around as the actor's hand moves with the phone in it. When Sherlock intuitively "reads" a person you see what his mind sees; that is, dozens of words appear briefly on the screen as the character being read is shown in-camera, floating here and there, singular words that describe every aspect of the character.  Holmes is rarely wrong so you have to read fast if you want to catch it all.

Then there are "upgraded" aspects of Doyle like Sherlock's "mind palace".  This term is a clever invention of the new series but, like everything else, it is rooted in the original material.  (It is, in fact, a technique taught to anyone who has taken a Dale Carnegie Course.) Holmes withdrew into himself to make deductions and analyze situations.  This could be rather visually boring but in the new series the writers take it to a comic extreme. Sherlock simply shuts down and stares - sometimes for hours, leaving Watson and the other characters to go into action while Sherlock remains seemingly semi-comatose.  In later episodes the producers take you inside Sherlock's mind palace which can be somewhat disorienting in terms of following the narrative. But it quickly becomes part of the chase to solve whatever situation exists.  So, you go with the non-linear aspects of it because you get to experience the twisted ways Sherlock's brilliant mind works and uncover tidbits of critical information that might not be otherwise expressed.

The chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch is really special.  Watson spends most of the first series trying without success to convince other characters that he and Sherlock are not living together as lovers.  Funny but also twisted because the two characters do become close friends. It is wonderful to watch this evolve.  In episode 8, Watson gets married and asks Sherlock to be his best man. It is traditional in England for the best man to give a speech at the official reception following the vows ceremony. Cumberbatch's Sherlock delivers a long, long soliloquy that will put tears in your eyes one moment, while making you simultaneously laugh and be frustrated with his virtually emotionless character in the next.

It is a wonderful example of how, at times, all the Sherlock episodes stop and Cumberbatch takes over in a monologue worthy of Shakespeare.  In what can best be described as an ejaculation of thoughts, ideas, deductions, facts, details, and insights Sherlock shifts into hyper-talk mode and rushes through every aspect of whatever it is he happens to be explaining with pristine accuracy and completeness.  All his mind palace stuff has been stored up, arranged, organized, and comprehended.  It all comes out of his rapidly moving mouth with precision but you have to hold on to grasp even most of it because he hardly pauses to take a breath as the minutes tick by, Watson looking astonished in the earlier episodes, just accusing him of "showing off" in later episodes as newer characters stare at Holmes aghast with his seemingly magical ability to explain and solve crimes and other situations with exacting detail.  It is both a convincing job of acting and a terrific intellectual rush as all the seemingly disconnected pieces of of the puzzle are put in place, in a singular moment, which is usually punctuated in the end by the utter silence of those who just listened as the case is solved.

Sherlock, really taken on as a secondary, after-thought project by all involved, has now blossomed into an international hit.  It is wildly popular in the United Kingdom and Canada.  It has a solid, though certainly not mainstream, following in America. Jennifer and I picked the perfect time to get into it, to binge it, and it rewarded us by giving us a great subject for conversation and left both of us ready for more.  I hope we don't have to wait two more years for the next episode (though it looks like we might).  This is TV worth watching.  We will likely binge the nine episodes again at some point. After all, with a well-done and imaginatively relevant show about Sherlock Holmes, you can hardly say you caught everything the first time around.

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