Sherlock Holmes, anti-hero

01-Oct-12 1:38 PM by
Filed under Television; 4 comments.

In 2000, when the DVD medium was still emerging, I cancelled my cable service. I decided if I wanted to watch a show, it'd be years later and on disc. Doing so requires more effort than just flipping on the television, so I tend to limit myself to two genres with proven track records for piquing my interest: comedies (like Big Bang Theory) and the impossible (Star Trek, Heroes, Buffy). I thus eliminate not only all "reality" TV, soap operas, and hospital shows, but also the voluminous genre known as the police procedural drama: Law & Order, CSI, and countless others.

But when a friend sent me a procedural drama that he thought I'd find interesting, I chose to honor that gift and investigate it further. "This [protagonist]… is the closest thing to an obtainable 'super hero' status that I can think of," he wrote in the iTunes gift receipt. "I love and hope to be [him], if just for a day, once in my life."

The object of my friend's aspiration is the protagonist of Sherlock, a modern take on the great detective. It debuted on the BBC in July 2010 and has run for two seasons (or series, as they're called in the U.K.), with each composed of three 90-minute episodes. My gift was the first season.

When the first episode opened to flashbacks of Middle Eastern warfare, I thought I was watching the wrong show. I quickly discovered the show is a modern-day re-imagining, set in a world where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books do not exist — which is why the main character can introduce himself without people asking, "Oh, like the detective?" This Sherlock Holmes is a twenty-something high-functioning sociopath who gets off on proving how smart he is. With the title of "consulting detective", he and his flatmate, war veteran Dr. John Watson, are called upon by the London police to solve crimes — not for financial reward, but for the thrill of the game.

Together, Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch — The Hobbit's Necromancer, and currently rumored to be the next Star Trek movie's villain) and Watson (Martin Freeman — The Hobbit's Bilbo Baggins!) solve a variety of deaths, with the first two episodes focusing on serial killers who make their murders look like suicides. As independent detectives, the pair are not above the law, but they do tend to operate outside it, not being confined by warrants, rights, and the like. Rather than rely on modern crime-solving techniques such as DNA analysis and forensics, Sherlock employs the science of deduction: observing minute clues — Is her wedding ring tarnished or polished? How muddy were his shoes, and where was it raining today? — and extrapolating reasonable yet astonishing conclusions. It's reminiscent of the theory behind Isaac Asimov's short story "Feminine Intuition": feed a brilliant character enough random information, and some meaningful connection will come out of it.

As someone ignorant of Sherlock's television contemporaries, I cannot say what sets this series apart from other police procedurals. There are some subtle effects, such as anytime a main character reads a text message on his cell phone, rather than show the audience the phone, the text is simply superimposed over the current scene. Or when Sherlock is scrutinizing a scene, the camera quickly cuts among and zooms in on his various observations. But the actual outline of discovering and solving crimes doesn't strike me as particularly unique — except for the crimes requiring someone of Sherlock's intellect to solve, often leaving even the audience in the dark until the last minute.

Martin Freeman as Dr. John WatsonAs in the original novels, the homely Watson is a foil to Sherlock, but he's an interesting character in his own right. He spends time looking for a job, pursuing romance, and recovering from his war wounds — he's an Everyman to whom the audience can relate.

By comparison, Sherlock lives up to his self-description as a sociopath: someone "who lacks a sense of moral responsibility or social conscience." Sherlock continuously shows an absence of empathy and sympathy for the potential colleagues and clients he encounters. In fact, the dumber he makes them feel, the better he seems to feel himself, going as far as to demonstrate his self-confidence and self-importance in such bold declarations to the police as "This will all go much more quickly if you take my word as gospel!" It goes beyond a preference for logic and efficiency over emotion: Sherlock is completely without awareness or understanding why not everyone is like him. Sometimes this shortcoming can be a stumbling block for understanding criminals' or victims' motivations: "Her daughter died years ago; why would she still be upset about it?" Sherlock asks, baffled by what would be obvious to any feeling person.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock HolmesI've always enjoyed Star Trek's Vulcan characters, from Spock to Tuvok, for not letting personal feelings get in the way of the mission, but Sherlock's ego elevates him beyond such likability. Although he is motivated to save lives hanging in the balance, it is only because he sees doing so as a victory, rather than any actual value he places on human lives. "Will caring about them help me save them?" he asks rhetorically. Caring is the purview of an entirely different class of person, one he dismisses: "Heroes don't exist; if they did, I wouldn't be one of them."

Unfortunately for the young Mr. Holmes, I prefer my heroes to be relatable. I don't believe ability alone is enough to make a character enviable; otherwise, we'd be celebrating Hitler for his speechmaking, or Lee Harvey Oswald for his marksmanship. It's how and, just as important, why those skills are used. Yes, we all want to feel smart, but rarely at the expense of others, or to benefit our own ego and nothing else. Look at Scott Bakula's character Sam Beckett, the star of Quantum Leap. Dr. Beckett had an I.Q. of 267 and seven doctoral degrees — yet he exemplified humility and worked in the service of humanity, not just for the potential reward of "the leap home", but because he genuinely cared about people. He had a passionate sense of justice and could not abide by selfishness, pettiness, racism, or other wrongdoing, no matter the perpetrator, crime, place, or era. Sam Beckett is a hero I admire and look up to, whereas today's Sherlock Holmes has no interest in even pretending to be one.

I have no doubt that the friend who bequeathed this series to me doesn't wish himself to be a sociopath. Instead, it is Sherlock's mental prowess that sets himself apart from other modern-day detectives. The rest of his personality turned me off after the first two episodes, but I thought it foolish to watch so much of the first season and not finish the deed, so I dutifully sat through the final show … and was surprised to find it the best of the lot. There was even one scene that had me on the edge of my seat — a remarkable feat for characters I claim to not be invested in. The season ended on a mild cliffhanger which left me a bit confused yet eager for resolution.

Will I watch the rest of the series? A serial television show often requires a significant commitment, up to 18 hours of viewing for a single season. But Sherlock's abbreviated nature demands only 4.5, which is far more tolerable. So despite my misgivings, I'm willing and able to go outside my genre limitations and see what further mysteries await the pairing of Holmes and Watson. The show is afoot!

4 Responses to “Sherlock Holmes, anti-hero”

  1. GeneD5 adds:

    As a longtime Sherlockian, I prefer the BBC/PBS "Sherlock" to the Ritchie/Downey steampunk action movies or the new CBS "Elementary," but I've of course followed all of them.

    Sherlock Holmes review
    Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows review

    Sherlock Holmes shouldn't start out as too sympathetic a character — he's egotistical, manic-depressive, and brilliant. Dr. Watson is our surrogate as we enter a world of heinous crimes, political intrigue, and a battle of wits and compassion (both of which Holmes has, even if he sometimes tries to hide them).

    I thought that "Sherlock" does a good job of setting the sleuth in today's fast-paced U.K. without losing any of the details, danger, or grit of the Victorian era.

    Over the course of Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories, as well as the best adaptations, we see Holmes become a better person because of his friendship with Watson, and Watson become a decent detective and crimefighter in his own right.

    Modern TV police procedurals, Star Trek's Spock and Data, and many other "sociopathic" antiheroes (Holmes is no doubt exaggerating to get a reaction from the people he's talking to) owe a tremendous debt to Conan Doyle. The game is indeed afoot!

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  2. peterw adds:

    As Gene hinted at, you should certainly watch the second series to see Holmes grow into a more (if not completely) likable human.

    And the second season finale? Wow! I've never tried so hard to freeze frame my way through a few seconds of video!

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  3. Ken Gagne adds:

    Thank you, gents! I confess I have little direct experience with the various manifestations of this character and am unsure if they are all quite so acerbic. I suppose the evolution Gene refers to is hinted at in the above trailer: "Sherlock Holmes is a great man… and someday, he may even be a good one."

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  4. GeneD5 adds:

    Ken, my favorite interpretation of Sherlock Holmes is the Jeremy Brett one from the early 1980s, but the original stories are an easy read.

    Like other archetypal British heroes such as King Arthur, Robin Hood, and James Bond, Holmes can be adapted in multiple ways. Some of Holmes' many descendants — Hercule Poirot, Batman, and House M.D. — demonstrate that the intelligent but eccentric sleuth continues to appeal to each new generation.

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