An Insufferable “Sherlock”

[N.B. For those of my American readers who are still waiting to see Sunday’s premiere episode of Season 2 of “Sherlock” on PBS Masterpiece, I would advise that you not read this blog post until you have had a chance to see it.  I will not be giving too many spoilers, but nevertheless there is always the possibility that my take on the show may color yours.  So for the rest of you, let us carry on.]

If you remember the old Jeremy Brett “Sherlock Holmes” series for Granada Television, in which he played the famous detective with a mix of hyperactive theatrics and detached insouciance, no doubt like me you found Holmes was at times a rather annoying figure.  However on the whole, the producers of that series, though they took liberties with the original stories, tried to remain faithful to those tales, and to consider ideas that were interesting to Conan Doyle and those of his times: the effect of advances in the sciences and technology on both the practice and investigation of crime; curiosity in the phenomenon of spiritualism as obtained from far-flung pagan cultures; the global political implications for the British Empire of certain events, and so on.  If Brett’s Holmes was not exactly by-the-book for purists, on the whole his manifestation of the character and the series itself were at least rooted in Holmes’ era, and the environment from which he arose.

I have always thought that the premiere episode of the Brett series, “A Scandal in Bohemia”, which features the mysterious and alluring character of Irene Adler, to be one of the finest of them all.  Holmes himself is always portrayed as being somewhat asexual, with no romantic life to speak of and an attitude toward women which is one of the respect a gentleman owed a lady, coupled with a disdain for the occasionally irrational, emotional outbursts of the fairer sex.  The fact that Holmes falls, if one could put it that way, for Irene Adler, and keeps a memento of her among his possessions, brings a wonderful, unrequited quality that is touching in the great man of thought who cannot quite bring himself to be as conventional as other men are.  This is in keeping with others of his type whom we know from history, such as Dr. Samuel Johnson, or even arguably C.S. Lewis, who was as surprised as anyone when late in life he met and was briefly married to his wife, Joy.

When Sunday’s episode of “Sherlock” began,and I saw that the title was “A Scandal in Belgravia”, meaning it would be a take-off on the Irene Alder story, I knew at once that we were in for trouble.  Having seen Season 1 of “Sherlock”, I was aware that the goal of the producers was to produce something hip and cool, trying to mix elements from such disparate elements in British cinema and television as the action of “Casino Royale”, and the near-nihilism of “Waking The Dead”.  I sat through Season 1, enjoying some of the more interesting parts such as the use of text across a scene when a character receives a message, or having a camera give us a sense of how Holmes’ brain works in analyzing a group of objects or people.  However, I was always distracted by the fact that apart from the bumbling Watson, there was no grounding of morality in what I saw.

Whereas in the Brett series the characters talked of virtues such as a man’s personal honor and dignity, respect for women, charity for the poor, love of Queen and country, and so on, there is often no higher purpose to the actions of the characters in “Sherlock”.  The title character himself is simply interested in the process, which was not the case in the Brett series: no matter how much the earlier incarnation of Sherlock might have professed to be detached from emotional concerns, what drew you in was the fact that every now and then, out of some word or gesture or action, you got a sense that maybe Holmes did in fact care just a tiny bit more about what we might call old-fashioned British standards than what he let on.  By contrast in “Sherlock”, it is clearly every man – and woman – for himself, and there is nothing redeeming about anyone.  To paraphrase another Conan Doyle story, it is a study in selfishness.

In the Brett series Irene Adler was a woman who had finally found a man who loved her for herself, not for her fame, and wanted to take her away from all the glamour and glitz of high society; she wanted to sacrifice herself to marry him and to finally lead a good and quiet life, so she could get away from the King who was still besotted with her.   In her new incarnation for “Sherlock” however, Irene Adler turns out to be a bisexual professional dominatrix, who has had a dalliance with a female member of the British royal family, and kept the pictures as protection.  At the revelation of this rather repulsive plot point I probably should have turned off the television altogether, but morbid curiosity kept me tuned in to see exactly how low the series would go.

At one point, the actress playing Adler makes a rather triumphant introduction of herself to Holmes, stripping off completely naked and sitting down to chat with him and Watson in her living room, almost like a nod to Christine Keeler in the Profumo scandal.  The problem is, this rather juvenile attempt at titillation of the audience speaks more to a teenage mind than an adult one.  This Irene Adler is not a temptress: she is simply a tart.

For one thing Lara Pulver, the actress who plays Irene Adler in “Sherlock”, is a perfectly nice looking woman, but nothing special.  A Gayle Hunnicutt – the stunning, red-haired actress who portrayed Irene Adler in the Brett series – she is not. It is hard to believe that someone so ordinarily pretty as this new Irene Adler could convince high-powered members of both sexes to risk everything in order to be with her.

And while stripping off to disarm her pursuers might be considered daring television, in truth in the earlier television version what made the character so appealing was her mysteriousness. The character of Irene Adler was an opera singer who made her way into the upper classes of Europe by her beauty, talent, and graciousness, and into the beds of the men she met because she learned, as a true courtesan knows, that it is what is not revealed that entices. This new Irene Adler is little more than a lower-class stripper from some seedy burlesque club in Soho, rather than a woman trained in the art of seduction.

I will avoid going through how the rest of the story goes downhill from here, other than to say that I spent more time asking myself about plot holes than paying attention to what was going on. Why did Watson have to go to Dublin, which had nothing to do with the plot, for example? Why does the overcoat worn by the rather tall Sherlock Holmes fit the rather short Irene Adler like a tailored garment, rather than an oversized bathrobe when she puts it on? Why is Mycroft Holmes’ assistant working for Irene Adler when she comes to pick him up at Baker Street? These and many other problems will have you scratching your head repeatedly, if you choose to watch this episode.

For my part, I am now finished with “Sherlock”. I have no interest in seeing what happens to a midget Moriarty ripped from a particularly bad episode of “Gossip Girl”, running around pretending he is as good an actor as Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight Rises” (which he most certainly is not.)  And as Sunday’s episode featured Watson punching the stuffing out of Holmes – something I have wanted to do ever since I started watching this series – I believe I am now emotionally content with leaving it where it is.

A series which has gone to such great lengths to insult my intelligence and my sense of taste is worth no further consideration on my part – nor, if you take my advice, should it have any further attention from you, gentle reader, either. It is a trashy thing, albeit for admittedly trashy times, and does nothing to build up our culture or provide worthy entertainment.  My children, if and when I am fortunate to have them, will never see it in my home.  Instead, I will be very happy to sit down with them, when they are old enough, and watch the Brett series which, however dated it may be, still upholds both a certain dignity and a belief that there is a difference between good and evil, right and wrong, which is sorely lacking from this new and childish production.

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in “Sherlock”

3 thoughts on “An Insufferable “Sherlock”

  1. Ironically, I loved it. I understand your points, but I *loved* the fact that Sherlock could read NOTHING from the naked woman except question marks. I loved the fact that even when he seemed to be seduced, he was analyzing. He did not succumb to her. She succumbed to him. And then – how did he GET there – he saved her from beheading. Did she touch his soul? One must assume. I thought this was a deeper glimpse into the soul of the man – and his brother – than we’ve ever been permitted. And it still left so many questions to ponder (for which there will never be answers).

    Regarding your thoughts of Brett’s Sherlock having a moral grounding, remember that the original Sherlock (as written by Arthur Conan Doyle) was a drug addict – as much a product of that time in history as his Victorian morals. At least the modern Sherlock isn’t a drug addict (and he’s trying to stop smoking). And as for being a product of modern morals, I’d say he’s head and shoulders above modern English “morals”, which seem to go heavy on the binge drinking, preferring to stay on the dole than to get a job, and rioting when they don’t get as much government chivvy as they think they deserve.


  2. I agree with your post – I am in the UK so this series was on about 6 months ago here – I watched the first few episodes but gave up. The plot, like many BBC series now, is just too superficial and trying to be too cool to bother with. Also I can’t stand Freeman’s Dr Watson – he just regurgitates his character in the Office!


  3. It was by far the least worthy of the new series, I agree. But my complaint was less with Adler (who is stunning–my, those eyes!) and more with the geo-political aspect that was just thrown in without warning at the end.

    I think they are working on building the moral framework. Mycroft says to Watson “He is a man of science and philosophy. Then why is he a detective?” It is similar to the question that drove the first (then good) seasons of HOUSE. A selfish jerk, and yet House cares as much about the patient’s life as about solving the mystery. So too Sherlock is a selfish jerk, but he cares about justice as much as solving the mystery. Maybe he actually cares about people…


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