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Friday, January 20, 2012

Sherlock....Again.


I start by apologizing to my readership for the repetition of topics.  There is a lot going on in my head these days.  A post about biblical femininity is brewing but isn't quite ready to hit the keyboard.  I'm also making a mental collection of daycare stories to post at some point just for comic relief.  But before any of that can happen, I have to cleanse my mind of the recent disturbance which has descended upon my poor, unsuspecting self.  Here's proof that there's no such thing as "just a story."

I saw the trailer for the new BBC Holmes a few months ago.  Honestly, it didn't spark an interest in me at the time.  Dealing with some major health issues and the burdens and responsibilities of being an RA, I didn't have room for the entrance of a new British miniseries to make an impact on my life.  Now, several months later, I've been doing my own digging into the classic Holmes tales and found that I enjoy Doyle's work immensely.  (See the former post comparing the books to the recent movie.)

Last week, PBS aired the show in an encore North American presentation.  I caught the first episode with the interest of a current reader.  Last night, I was able to complete the first season (three episodes total, each 90 minutes long...I know...European TV is so different,  Just wanted to clarify that finishing the first season in a week didn't entail endless hours of brainless watching!)  I have come away extremely agitated.  It wasn't a lack of interest in the show or even a severe deviation from tradition in plot that bothers me so much.  Contrarily, the producers and actors have done a great job of modernizing Holmes while still maintaining the old world feel of Baker Street.  It's comparable to the nonexistent (but incredibly believable) time period of "A Series of Unfortunate Events." A lot of people have mentioned the success of the show's attempt to reveal Sherlock's thought processes by ghosting words and symbols onto the screen.  And I concede that the casting is well done.  (I am particularly fond of Dr. Watson....increasingly irritated with Holmes himself...but I'm getting ahead of myself.)  And I'll also concede that Sherlock is a type.  He can change with the times and retain his essential Holmes-ness.  Especially given Doyle's lack of loyalty to the original Holmes (he was reportedly eager to kill him off so he could also move on with his life...) I don't think updating Sherlock is a big problem.  It doesn't do damage to the stories.  It isn't like trying to update Narnia or Middle Earth, since doing that would destroy them.  And one of the neatest things I've realized in the journey of Holmes is that intelligent is coming back!  Hopefully, the days under the reign of the antihero (Napoleon Dynamite..) are FAR behind us.  It's nice to see smart (even nerdy) seeing better days.  Let us think!  Yay!  So, in short and so far (I haven't seen the second season...not sure I will), I like what I've seen.  But that's just the problem.

The new BBC Sherlock is dark.  And I feel for the new series exactly as I felt after reading Fitzgerald for the first time.  I liked it.  But I hate that I like it.  I hate the attraction it holds for me; it speaks to an unnamed darkness within.  I walk away with a confident feeling that nothing is wrong. And underneath I know that everything is wrong! The fire is out, but if you stir the coals you realize that they aren't dead.  In fact, they put me in a lot of danger.  So, let's stir the coals a little bit so that I can throw cold water on it, toss out my scrawled notes of analysis, and stop thinking about it.

I said before that Sherlock was a lot like Hamlet for me.  My Shakespearean friends know how strong of a statement that is.  Shakespeare did something in Hamlet that made the character a real person.  We talk of Hamlet like a piece of history.  And we tend to do the same with Sherlock Holmes.  He's very much alive to us.  In fact, a recent statistic revealed that 1/5 of all British people think that Holmes was actually a historical figure.  Sure, it reveals some ignorance, but those stats also speak to the power of a classic story to transform a culture.  And that is why it's not "just a story."  He's a cultural icon and he reveals the culture as well as shapes it.  So if we assume that the new BBC version is indicative of the current culture (certainly an extreme view of it, but a view to be taken seriously) than we can draw some chilling conclusions about the Western world.

The new Sherlock is postmodern, egotistic, sociopathic, pragmatic, and non-empathetic.  One at a time now...
Postmodern- The atmosphere of the show is one of shaky moral values at best.
Egotistic- Holmes is desperately self-absorbed. (It gets nauseating.  I want to like him.  I can't.)
Sociopathic- Holmes avoids people and applies his rules to others only.
Pragmatic- Stealing, manipulation, lying, and other wrongs are approached with the attitude of "means justifies the end."  The game is everything.  The work is his idol.
Lack of empathy- Apparently, Holmes cares for no one.  His attitudes lack emotion. (Which, I find interesting and paradoxical...probably because I'm not a man...huh.)

Besides the deduction that we are dealing with a relativistic, self-absorbed, and apathetic culture, we should notice that these revelations center on the character of Holmes (just as the more traditional, but equally mysterious values of the original centralized on the literary Holmes.) With this in mind, I raise the question that has plagued me for the past 24 hours.  What makes the new Holmes intrinsically different from his archenemy, Moriarty?  Is it just that we like him?  He's the main character so we're supposed to agree with him?  If Sherlock wins, did objective "good" win or was it just the protagonist?  Did we replace the unintelligent cultural antihero with something else...something darker?  Something that isn't a hero at all, just a friendly villain.  ARGH!  I can't get over how deeply this question cuts me.  I've been introduced to three different Holmes's in the past two months.  This third has left me feeling as if I just found out that my long-time friend is a government-hired assassin.  It's unsettling to say the least.

I could spend hours refuting the worst ideological flaws of the show (and the book...though those in the book provide a different set of anti-biblical fallacies which are somewhat less threatening to our current culture than others.)  Instead, I'd like to make one palpable -if somewhat weak- case for the value of the show.  How does it take one deeper into life versus distracting one from life?  Holmes begins to humanize...and by that, I mean that the people he has in his life (unwelcome though they may seem at times) begin to change him.  His walls begin to fall down (though only very slightly so far).

I base my case for the redemption of the show on the words of Jesus in John 15:13.  "Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends."  Ultimately, He means that His own death on the cross is the most superlative expression of love in the history of the world.  But He also means to comment on the nature of mankind.  If someone is willing to lay down his or her life for you, you can safely assume that the motive is out of love for you.  And this is exactly what Dr. Watson offers to do in the final scene of the first season.  My theory will rise or fall based on the next season (which I'm not positive I can bring myself to watch) but it's worth noting that the idea of "good vs evil" begins to clarify itself in those very final moments.

The scene occurs after another emotionally charged conversation between Watson and Holmes.  Watson has just begun to understand Holmes's lack of empathy.  (A scene which nearly stole much of my sleep last night.)


John Watson: There are lives at stake, Sherlock! Actual human lives— Just, just so I know, do you care about that at all?
Sherlock Holmes: Will caring about them help save them?
John Watson[angrily] Nope!
Sherlock Holmes: Then I'll continue not to make that mistake.
John Watson: And you find that easy, do you?
Sherlock Holmes: Yes, very. Is that news to you?
John Watson: No. [pause] No.
Sherlock Holmes[realising] ...I've disappointed you.
John Watson[sarcastically] That's good, that's good deduction, yeah.
Sherlock HolmesDon't make people into heroes, John. Heroes don't exist, and if they did, I wouldn't be one of them.


Shortly thereafter the two find themselves face to face with Moriarty.  Watson has a bomb strapped to him and the bead of a sniper trained on the ignition of the explosive.  It's the first time Sherlock has something that the audience considers a "personal" stake in the victim of Moriarty's madness.  Sherlock shows the first cracks in his armor.  So he does seem to care...?

Sherlock Holmes: People have died.
Jim Moriarty: That's what people DO!
-----

Jim Moriarty: Do you know what happens if you don't leave me alone, Sherlock, to you?
Sherlock Holmes: Oh, let me guess, I get killed.
Jim Moriarty: Kill you? Um, no. Don't be obvious I mean, I'm gonna kill you anyway, someday. I don't want to rush it though. I'm saving it up for something special! No no no no no, if you don't stop prying... I'll burn you. I will burn... the heart out of you.
Sherlock Holmes: I've been reliably informed that I don't have one.
Jim Moriarty: Oh, but we both know that's not quite true.

Then something unexpected happens.  Just as the truly psychopathic villain steps past the ex-soldier, Watson lunges and puts Moriarty in a headlock.  He then calmly reminds Moriarty that if the sniper fires, they both die.  Sherlock's eyes widen and his jaw drops.  (So...he IS different from Moriarty.  He isn't willing to stake everything for the game.  Watson's life means something.  Vaguely...he's not sure why... but still...something there.  Something empathetic, shall we say?  Something valuable.  And it's Moriarty of all people who points out the differences.  The unresolved problem that remains...Sherlock hasn't developed his empathy by concern for others so he's not sure how to respond.  Is he suppressing his natural emotional responses???  Questions!?)

When the clash suddenly ends and Moriarty makes a lunatic's exit (only to return...), Sherlock tears the bomb from his friend's chest and asks repeatedly if Watson is okay.  He doesn't stop asking until he's sure that Watson is fine.  Then, still shocked and humbled, he says, "What you did just then...that was...that was...good."  He says the word as if it was a new concept for him. (We're hoping that it isn't entirely new...just unpracticed.)  Sherlock deals with facts and conclusions.  He rarely dabbles with morality or objective implications.  "Good."  He might be starting to get it.  I'm not sure.  Maybe the writers will start injecting some of that refreshing goodness into the show.  I don't know.  Until then, Sherlock drains the life from me.

Wow.  What a relief.  I'm going to return to the books.  :)  That's probably where I belonged in the first place.  :)

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