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!

Sit Right Back and You'll Hear a Tale

10-Jan-08 8:30 AM by
Filed under Television; 2 comments.

Via Bonzer Web Sites comes TV Series Finale, a Web site that catalogs and reminisces about the conclusions of television shows, from black-and-white classics to recent cancellations. The site reports on all sorts of current events, such as DVD releases and actor updates, but most appealing are the features that focus on the final chapters of our favorite shows.

The two best finales of all time, IMHO, are Cheers and Quantum Leap, so those were the first two I looked for on this site. TV Series Finale does not have a listing for Quantum Leap, and its podcast on Cheers has scrolled off its iTunes Store archive, so I instead downloaded their audio report on another show from my youth: Gilligan's Island.

Though I'm not much a fan of audiobooks, I enjoyed this podcast. After a brief review of the origin of Gilligan's Island and the motivation behind its cancellation, the podcast's host recounted the events of not only the series finale, but also each of its made-for-TV movie sequels, as well as animated and reality TV spin-offs. The podcast closed by enumerating the activities and fates of each of the show's alumni. The detailed narrative and professional delivery was a fun trip down memory lane that offered trivia I'd never known.

The podcasts may likely be the site's best feature, as I had some trouble accessing its text. Navigation is a bit wonky; for example, if you go to the TV show index and click on Cheers, what you get is not a listing of articles specifically about the Boston pub-based show, but instead the results of a site search on keyword "cheers" — which may have little, if any, direct connection to the show in question.

But if you're looking to recall or learn the history of some classic shows, TV Series Finale's podcasts are an fun, easy, and free vehicle for doing so.

One Giant Leap for Klingonkind

18-Dec-07 2:37 PM by
Filed under Celebrities, Star Trek, Television; 1 comment.

I was finishing up the second season of Quantum Leap on DVD last night when the opening credits for the episode "Sea Bride" revealed a John Hertzler. Suspecting that he would become better known by his initials, I did not keep an eye out for a face I wouldn't recognize without extensive makeup, but an ear open for an unmistakably gruff voice. Sure enough, there he was — the man better known as Deep Space Nine's General Martok.

Quantum Leap

In the above shot, he and Scott Bakula share a victory; below, they toast their glory with a mug of bloodwine.

Enterprise

His characters are surprisingly similar, with almost interchangeable lines. You'd expect the following retort to come from Star Trek — but it didn't: