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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Modern-day ‘Sherlock Holmes’ thrives

Published: January 27, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc., Top Stories

On Jan. 15, the BBC aired the second season finale of its modern adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective novels starring the enigmatic Sherlock Holmes, titled “Sherlock.” The show, which chronicles the adventures of the world’s only consulting detective and his loyal companion John Watson, is uniquely structured with each season consisting of only 3.5-hour-long episodes. This is remarkably short even by the standards of British television, in which seasons can often be as short as six or seven episodes. Despite the sparseness in content, however, BBC’s “Sherlock” has garnered a strong and sometimes even fanatical fan base, a testament to the extraordinary, everlasting quality of the tales of Sherlock Holmes.
Though Sherlock Holmes has seen many adaptations over the years, and even very recently a la Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, this one distinguishes itself because it is firmly ensconced in the modern era. Sherlock Holmes and John Watson call each other by their first names, make great use of texting (text messages even appear on screen as characters receive and send them) and solve cases with the aid of modern forensic technology. The show has also effectively used the Internet, breaking the fourth wall by creating blogs written by the characters for all to see, adding additional contexts and insights to the show. This grounding of an old story in the modern era makes the tales feel fresh, aiding the show in gaining the enormous following it has earned.
The show is incredibly enjoyable, and it is easy to become invested in the adventures of our heroes. The extra-long episodes allow for deep attachments to grow between the viewer and the characters, as the show explores the cases and emotional struggles of both the damaged, emotional John and the heady, cold Sherlock. The cases are subtle, Sherlock’s deductions believable and the villains formidable and frightening. The character’s pain very often becomes the watcher’s pain, an emotional connection that gives the show much of its remarkable strength.
Aiding in the impact that the show has on the watcher is the quality of the actors who star in it, primarily Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as John Watson. Both actors are clearly invested in their roles. Martin Freeman was additionally honored with an award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) for his talents in portraying the ever-loyal and stalwart Watson. Also noteworthy are the acting talents of Andrew Scott, who portrays the many sides of Sherlock’s nemesis, James Moriarty, with enormous passion and a distinctive flare.
Most recently, at the end of season two, “Sherlock” took on the epic conflict between Sherlock Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, in a heart-wrenching conflict that originally came to a head in Conan Doyle’s novel “The Final Problem.” It has caused modern fans a great deal of agony. The confrontation raises questions about the legitimacy of Sherlock’s legacy and intelligence in the universe of the show. It is here that the fans took to the street and broke their own fourth wall, allowing Sherlock’s world to bleed into our own with posters proclaiming, “I believe in Sherlock Holmes.” Some of the posters are now visible on the Brandeis campus. The devotion that the fans continually show to the series, bringing it beyond the walls of its own universe, is a remark on its quality.
The program, however, is not without flaws. The show has often been accused of sexism, particularly since its writer, Steven Moffat, has been accused of similar charges concerning the other major show for which he writes: the omnipresent “Doctor Who.” There has been particular affront to his portrayal of Irene Adler, a woman of power, rival of Sherlock and one of the few female characters on the show. In traditional adaptations, Irene has manipulated Sherlock and taunted him with the idea of affection that may or may not be present. Many complain that this modern adaptation of Irene, who is a dominatrix, only grants Irene sexual power and faults the show for writing a version of Irene that did, in fact, seem to fall in love with Sherlock. Eventually she needs to be rescued by him—as a degradation of the character and an affront to feminine strength.
Despite well-documented flaws in the characterization of Irene Adler, the writing is skillful, with wonderful quips and exchanges between characters giving the show life and humor.