I’ll begin by apologizing to the Chris Brown fans who clicked in here based on the title. Come back next week for Everyone’s Least Favourite Prick, Except Yours, For Some Reason.
No, I’m talking Sherlock Holmes. Nothing about this creep suggests he should be so outrageously popular (I may recycle that line next week for Chris Brown, by the way). He’s mean, nasty, arrogant, selfish, lacks empathy, regularly boasts of his intellectual superiority, and doesn’t think twice about humiliating people in public. He comes from a series of dusty old short stories published over a hundred years ago by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who clearly understood today’s 18-34 demographic. And, worst of all, he’s British. Anyone who has seen a movie knows that bad guys are British.
Heroes are supposed to be likable. Many are humble and conflicted, and often motivated by love, like Peter Parker or Helen Hunt. They might have some roguish swagger, like Han Solo or Tony Stark, but we know deep down they are kindhearted. Bruce Wayne isn’t all that likable, but he’s tormented, which the chicks dig. Plus, he’s got a badass car. Let’s not forget Jason Voorhees of the Friday the 13th films. Sure, he’s laconic and one-dimensional, but we appreciate his efforts to stop 28-year-old “teenagers” from delivering any more terrible dialog. He collects heads too. Every hero needs a hobby.
Sherlock offers none of these qualities, yet we’re in the midst of Holmes mania. Two pretty successful movies, a critically acclaimed BBC show, and CBS’s Elementary, a virtual shoo-in for renewal next season. His unlikely popularity is not the only oddity in play, either. Can you think of another case in which the same character is simultaneously played by three people?
In the BBC series, if you can call six episodes in three years a series, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is the equivalent of an intellectual base jumper. In one episode, he nearly consumes what could have been fatal poison simply to see if he was correct in deducing that it was not. He’s also manic, raging when he gets stuck and exalting orgasmically when the answer reveals itself. He’s hardly the dignified British gentleman portrayed by the likes of Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone in stately old period pieces 60 years ago.
Here in the U.S., CBS wisely kept Sherlock British. An obnoxiously clever American is not only implausible but, without the accent, his insults would just sound like insults. Jonny Lee Miller’s Sherlock is less natty and superhero-like, wearing jeans and tattered sweaters. The writers also emphasize his drug addiction, going as far as insert his former dealer into an episode, in which he tries to convince Sherlock he’s a better detective when high. I don’t remember Peter Cushing staring down a bag of heroin and getting the shakes in Hound of the Baskervilles, but maybe I was in the bathroom for that scene.
Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock is about explosions and stunts. Hollywood writing is mostly crap now compared to what’s on TV, but the one thing they still do better is spectacle. I mean, if you’re going to spend $120 million, you may as well blow some shit up. Enough about that.
A vast improvement in the new TV versions over the old stories and movies is the function of Watson. Old Watson was laughably stupid. Perhaps that’s how comic relief once worked, but it was incongruent for the character of Holmes to keep company with a moron. Why would Holmes need a useless idiot around to slow him down and force him to explain simple concepts, thus wasting his time and delaying resolution of cases? Besides clunky exposition, that is.
Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson in the BBC series is an Afghan war veteran who, like many soldiers, maintains a code of silence about what happens on the battlefield. His stoic resolve, not to mention his handiness with weapons, serves as a necessary counterpoint to Holmes’ grandiosity and verbosity. He also functions as Sherlock’s appreciative audience while, at the same time, keeping his partner’s feet on the ground. In a way, Freeman is the opposite of his Bilbo Baggins character in The Hobbit. Bilbo prefers to be left alone in the peace and quiet of the Shire, whereas Watson has a hard time adjusting to civilian life and craves the danger, excitement, and unpredictability of life with Holmes. Can you guess which of Freeman’s characters is more interesting?
Meanwhile, Lucy Liu’s Dr. Watson has her own psychological troubles, having killed a patient through negligence during surgery. She now serves as Holmes’ sober companion and spends as much time keeping him away from temptation as she does helping him solve crimes. She doesn’t have as much to do as her BBC counterpart, but a big component of the show’s success stems from the chemistry between the leads. My sources on the set say Miller and Liu are nice, and that they film outside a lot.
I recognize that I need to upgrade my sources.
Let’s pause for a moment to, as I often do, explain how reality works to people who leave comments on entertainment web pages. The biggest complaint I’ve encountered online about Elementary, a well-acted, well-shot, solid-but-not spectacular TV series, is that it lacks the plotting complexity and story depth of the BBC version.
Shall we review the key variable? BBC produces three episodes per season, each one written and filmed over several months. CBS cranks out 24 episodes, each one written and filmed in about a week. In that context, the American version is pretty brilliant. You may not like that American TV is driven by ad revenue and dreams of future syndication, but facts are facts. It’s elementary, my dear IMDb user.
[Once the editors here at PFC realize the vast majority of my stories are inspired by annoying comments I read on the internet, I will be shitcanned, and someone else will have to write these earthy, middle-America pieces every Sunday.]
With season three of BBC’s Sherlock Holmes about to commence production, legions of fans are already whipping themselves into a frenzy over a few hours of entertainment that won’t be broadcast until late summer at the earliest. All this for a character who is essentially a douchebag. As I asked up top, why? In eliminating the impossible (that people think Sherlock Holmes is likable), whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. That is, I think people want to be him, just like they want to be James Bond or Gamera, the Giant Flying Turtle. They fancy themselves as smarter and wittier than the rest of us, and they’d love the chance to tell us, with impunity, how stupid we are.
Um, Sherlock Holmes is about deduction, not delusion, folks. The sad truth in this metaphor is that every last one of us is Watson.