Everyone’s Favourite Prick

Jonny Lee Miller in Elementary

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.

lucy2Heroes 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.

Benedict Cumberbatch

Benedict Cumberbatch

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

Martin Freeman

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.

Happy viewing!

Eric J Baker

Comments: 6

  • Rowana February 17, 20137:20 pm

    Well, I would argue that there’s much more to Robert Downey Jr’s Sherlock Holmes than “blowing shit up” and dismissing his two Holmes movies with “enough about that.”  The movies ARE spectacle, surely (has Victorian England ever looked more spectacular on the big screen?), but they were also the creative force that kicked off the “modern Sherlock” mania.  There’s little doubt that the BBC “series” would not have been greenlighted were it not for the first Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movie making half a billion dollars worldwide and setting off the whole Holmes craze…and without the Ritchie movies and the BBC series, there’d not have been an “Elementary” — so Downey’s Holmes is really the progenitor of the other two.  
    More than that, though, I and many other longtime Sherlock Holmes aficionados find Downey’s Holmes to be the most human and complex of any of the three current modern versions.  Yes, he’s surrounded by Ritchie’s patented explosions and the laughably bigger-and-bigger guns of the second movie, “Game of Shadows,” and all the “spectacle” of a high-concept PG-13 Victorian superhero adventure.  But take another look at the two Ritchie Sherlock Holmes movies — this is, for the first time, a Holmes who is struggling on an emotional level.  Downey, one of our finest actors, brings that out clearly (and his Holmes is so different from his Tony Stark — another “superhero” who could have been just a glib cipher in another actor’s grasp — that I can’t even think of the two characters as being played by the same actor).  After all the haughty, arrogant and practically perfect Holmeses of the movies of yore, Downey’s Holmes has chinks in his armor — he’s as much a drug addict as a PG-13 movie will allow him to be (drinking stuff “meant for eye surgery” — clearly cocaine), he’s plagued and clearly tormented by his “curse” of seeing/hearing/noticing EVERYTHING…and he’s wildly emotionally (and, perhaps, in a deeper sense, longingly) dependent on his Watson (Jude Law), who is leaving Holmes and his world of adventure for the calm and safety of marriage.
    Remember that sad little scene in the first movie where Holmes is in a restaurant, waiting for Watson and Mary, and he CAN’T SHUT OUT all the noise and chatter and every little thing going on around him.  He’s in abject pain.  It’s both this Holmes’s finest talent — seeing all the small details, in every detail — and his deepest despair.  He can never be normal.  Watch that scene again and see how Downey plays it — his forlorn attachment to Watson and his inability to harness and control his gift/curse becomes very clear (and Downey ends the scene with a brilliant little piece of business worthy of, well, Chaplin, that is both heartbreaking and profound).   
    Watson is Holmes’ only real friend in the world, and for all the flirting and touching and other playful homoerotic jazz between Downey and Law that riffs below the main plotlines in both RDJ Holmes movies, that partnership and friendship and, yes, love (of whichever Greek name you imagine it to be) is the real bedrock of the movie series.  (Does any couple on the big screen today have more chemistry together than Downey and Law?)  In the second movie, “Game of Shadows” — amid all the exploding stuff and the giant phallic guns (oh, Guy Ritchie, you and your big guns…), it’s those gentle little moments between Holmes and Watson that come as breathing space, little human touches that keep the audience engaged with these two characters.  I suspect it’s the actors who made that happen, more than the script, but there it is, all the same.  Don’t forget that the entire plotline of “Game of Shadows” was Holmes sacrificing himself to save Watson and his wife (and, oh yes, the world).   And don’t forget that Jude Law’s Watson is the first Kickass!Watson, as competent and as good or better than Holmes in a fight — he was the first Watson to overcome the old stereotype (thank you, Nigel Bruce) of Watson as an old, slow bumbler.

    I enjoy the other two (TV) iterations of Sherlock Holmes very much, but it’s the Ritchie movie series (ironically, the only one of the three set in the actual Victorian period) that I find the most compelling and enjoyable.  As someone who has read and studied and re-read the Arthur Conan Doyle “canon” Holmes since middle-school days, I’m not a johnny-come-lately to Sherlock Holmes appreciation.  As a longtime Holmes fan, I deeply appreciate ANY popular-culture version that attracts a fandom and leads people to read the original stories and novels, and that’s what all three of the modern versions — the RDJ films, the BBC and “Elementary” — are doing.  Sherlock Holmes (as much as Conan Doyle ended up hating his own creation) is as immortal as any of Shakespeare’s characters and, like them, is going to be adapted again and again and again (more than 140 different screen and stage adaptations, to date, across 125 years…including the ones where Holmes fought Nazis, and dinosaurs…).  Some adaptations will be great, some good; others not so much.  We are blessed today to have three great and very different ones.

    As you say, I can’t think of any other literary character who is currently being portrayed by three different actors in three different creations, so obviously Holmes is in the zeitgeist now, and all real Holmes fans are celebrating that.  But please don’t summarily dismiss Downey’s Holmes and Law’s Watson — they are in themselves brilliant portrayals and have a huge and loyal fan following.  Together, both Sherlock Holmes movies have made a billion dollars worldwide — probably because of the canny combination of action-adventure, shit blowin’ up, and, well, big guns; but also because of the very human, captivating Holmes and Watson at their center.  There are rumors of a third Downey Holmes movie — just hoping it is true.   
    Sorry to ramble on, but we Holmes fans are pretty passionate about our favorite adaptations!  Thanks for blogging on the Sherlocks.

    • jkillough February 17, 20137:40 pm

      Rowana And you, sir/madam, win the PFC Third Anniversary Prize for Best Comment.  You’re obviously passionate about this subject, and that makes what we do entirely worthwhile. 
      I’m personally glad they are breaking Sherlock out of the mold, both modern and traditional adaptations.  My only issue with Downey is he’s so clearly American, and as an Ameropean with a British education, that is grating — I never buy into him.  Specifically, he’s so Californian.  So what I do is I think of his/Ritchie’s Sherlock series as being Steampunk, and that makes it more palatable.

      • Rowana February 17, 20139:00 pm

        jkillough Rowana  Wow, why, thank you, sir.  (And yes, I’m madam.)  Hmm – well, Downey works with the great dialect coach Andrew Jack (and has since “Chaplin”) on his English (RP) accent, so — it’s not like it’s Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood of Iowa goin’ on here.  But — I’m Californian, so maybe my ear is more forgiving.  And yes, there is definitely a Steampunk attitude and many steampunky elements in the Downey/Holmes movies, so you have a great point.  Nothing wrong with a great Sherlock Holmes Steampunk action-adventure — it’s yet another different and valid Holmes adaptation, different from the BBC chamber piece and the CBS detective procedural and equally enjoyable.  All of them are blowing the dust off the old deducer and tossing away the deerstalker and the Inverness cape, and thank goodness for that.  Thanks for the prize!! You guys rock.

        • jkillough February 17, 20139:20 pm

          Rowana jkillough An actor from a film of mine, William Houston, played Constable Clark opposite RDJ in SHERLOCK and said he was an absolute dynamo, inspiring, and that’s a lot coming from a star of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Other colleagues from shoots before Downey’s reform are less enthusiastic.  Thank you for compliments.

        • Rowana February 18, 201311:45 am

          jkillough Rowana  Adore William Houston — Constable “Clarky” has his own fan following!

        • ericjbaker February 18, 20138:30 pm

          Rowana jkillough Hey Rowana… We have a rule here about the comments not being better than the story they are commenting upon. We’ll have to open a full investigation. Now if only we had some sort of clever chap who could come in and get to the bottom of it…

          Sorry to come across as dismissive of the RDJ theatrical releases. We have a pretty bad habit here of acting holier than thou about big-budget movies. You’re so right in pointing out that this is the only current Holmes incarnation set in the authentic time period (though one could make a case that the spectacle is less excusable for that reason). The chemistry between Downey and Law is good. I only wish they scaled back the Bondian stunt set pieces and focused on the character’s cleverness and added a bit more intrigue.
          Very tangential, but that’s how we roll: Downey owned those Iron Man films. When they were  bouncing Jon Favreau’s name around for Star Wars 7, I was hoping Kathleen Kennedy realized how heavily the first Iron Man relied on Downey to carry it. Not knocking Favreau as a filmmaker, but not thinking he’s brilliant enough to rescue the Star Wars franchise.

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