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Sherlock: The Great Game

I've ended up with oddly mixed feelings about this series now that it is over. Some things about it have been so consistently good - especially the design, the camerawork, and the characterisation of Sherlock himself. I love the way that this Holmes dances the line between being cringe-makingly loathsome and yet also exciting and fascinating and just understatedly nice enough that our sympathies remain with him. And I think Benedict Cumberbatch is doing a brilliant job, not only with the grand gestures but also with the small details which really bring the character to life. The original stories are used beautifully without weighing down the new stories that the series is trying to tell; most of the dialogue and the supporting characters are detailed and rich and witty and intriguing; and most of the plots are neatly structured and satisfyingly resolved. Heck, even the various tie-in websites actually do provide genuine added value, even if the supposed hidden messages on Sherlock's site hardly seem like the work of a master criminal.

And yet... and yet some things which seemed incredibly promising early on have ended up disappointing.

Looking back over my first post about it, I see that I was excited at what presenting Sherlock's face upside down on the first occasion that we meet him was signalling about the series' intentions to invert old tropes. But although I do think that Sherlock and Watson themselves as characters have been very nicely brought forward into the modern world, the rest of what's going on around them unfortunately oozes with unexamined tropes which have most certainly not been inverted at all. The second episode was the clearest example of this, with all the Mystic Chinese Yellow Peril business that I noted in my write-up of it; but as innerbrat has shown very convincingly, some terrifyingly prejudicial homophobic tropes have emerged over the course of the series too.

In the first episode, the little references to how Watson and Sherlock weren't a couple - not that there's anything wrong with that of course! - didn't seem so bad, but they've happened repeatedly in every single episode now. I do think it's noticeable that all of the awkward denials have consistently come from Watson, while Sherlock has been much less interested in the issue. So, for example, when Watson said in this episode that he was glad no-one had seen Sherlock ripping his clothes off in a darkened swimming pool because 'people might talk', Sherlock merely shrugged and replied 'People do little else'. I think it's perfectly possible that the emphasis on Watson's awkwardness with the issue is there partly to give Sherlock the opportunity to be entirely at ease with it by contrast - and I do like the latter part of that equation. But I also completely agree with innerbrat that Watson's side of it has been horribly overdone and has become unpleasant; and that adding in a bunch of negative gay stereotypes this week has been pretty much the last straw on this front.

I note also from my first post that, while recognising that the format of the show and its central relationship simply doesn't allow as much room for strong female characters as I'd ideally like, I was also still pretty optimistic about the ones we had met thus far: particularly Sally Donovan, the police sergeant, and Mycroft's mysterious assistant, Anthea. But they have disappointed, too. Anthea has completely disappeared, as indeed did Sally in the second episode. And Sally's return in episode three has been distinctly disappointing. In the first episode her snipings at Sherlock were intriguing - they hinted at an interesting backstory which had given her some reason to hate him so much, and also promised that there would be a consistent voice in the series to challenge and question Sherlock. But none of that has emerged. We've been given no reason for her hostility and no real deconstruction of Sherlock's character - just what sounds like a load of petty childish griping and a usage of the word 'freak' that I'm distinctly uncomfortable with.

Then also there is Sarah - given a promising introduction in episode two, but already starting to disappoint by the end, when Watson had the presence of mind to tip over the chair he was tied to, so that he could wriggle over and save her from the cross-bow, but she somehow didn't realise that she could actually save herself in exactly the same way. The scene between her and Watson early on in this week's episode had some promise - I liked the way she offered Watson breakfast, and then added "Well, you'll have to make it yourself, because I'm going for a shower", for example. It wasn't anything major - just a nice piece of small-detail characterisation that kept her from being a total wash-out. But again, that's all she got before disappearing again.

I think a lot of the problems here probably stem from the very limited scope of a three-episode run - even if those episodes are each 90 minutes long. It means that many of the characters who seemed so promising early on just haven't had time to be developed properly - and in the squeeze of a limited run, it seems to be the female characters in particular who have suffered. What makes that so especially frustrating is the efforts which the first episode seemed to be making to set up interesting and intriguing characters whom I wanted to learn more about - a promise which was then never delivered on. If they'd just been fairly mediocre in the first place, I wouldn't have minded so much. Entrusting each episode to a different writer obviously hasn't helped much with this: it's noticeable that Lestrade, Mycroft and Sally Donovan vanished entirely from the middle episode, while even the character of Sherlock lost the nasty edge which kept him so interesting in the first and third. On the plus side, I think Watson has undergone a steady and plausible development from the bored, traumatised veteran of the first episode to the active and competent investigator of the third. But Moffat and Gatiss as co-creators really should have taken steps to ensure that this was happening more consistently for the secondary characters as well.

Some things have felt rushed, too - especially the introduction of Moriarty. The unveiling of his 'great game' in episode three really needed to come after a good ten hours' worth of getting used to Sherlock's modus operandi - not to mention coming to believe that he might plausibly attract the attentions of a criminal mastermind. Besides, after some of the discussions we had about Moriarty's identity right here on my very own journal, I was kind of disappointed that in the end he turned out to be... just Moriarty - even if he was also a seemingly-innocuous character we'd encountered earlier in the same episode, and even if we were for a moment presented with the thrilling possibility that he might be Watson. I still think his turning out to be Anthea would have been way cooler.

So, yeah. The stories are gripping, the visuals are beautiful, and Sherlock, Watson, Mycroft and Lestrade are all well-enough developed to make me want to come back for more. It's just a pity about the rushed schedule, under-developed characters and poor handling of minority groups. But it has definitely been nice to have something this well put-together showing over the summer when most cult TV series are on hiatus, and I am very happy to hear that they will be making more of it. I have already pre-ordered the box set, and will doubtless be back with my thoughts on the unaired pilot which it includes once it has arrived. Give it a bit longer and a rethink on the unexamined tropes front, and this could just start to present Granada's Jeremy Brett series with some serious competition. But it has some way to go just yet.

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 10th, 2010 09:11 pm (UTC)
Then also there is Sarah - given a promising introduction in episode two, but already starting to disappoint by the end, when Watson had the presence of mind to tip over the chair he was tied to, so that he could wriggle over and save her from the cross-bow, but she somehow didn't realise that she could actually save herself in exactly the same way.

that bugged me too until I realised that one of the henchmen had his leg against her chair, presumably to prevent her from tipping it over. Would've been nice if that'd been a bit clearer, alas...

And the implication I get is that Sherlock and Donovan slept together one evening, he left without a word (not understanding he was supposed to say something or that there would be an emotional need or somethign) and she's taking it badly. Her refrain about him always leaving and letting you down in ep 1 supports it. Hopefully, she'll get more development in series 2.
Aug. 10th, 2010 09:23 pm (UTC)
one of the henchmen had his leg against her chair

Oh, did he? Still would have been clearer to show her at least struggling against him, or even just tie her to a pillar instead, though.

And yes, I'm sure you're right about what we are meant to infer about Sherlock and Donovan. But again, just one more line that provided some more direct hint about it would have made a big difference.
Aug. 10th, 2010 09:48 pm (UTC)
Oh, did he? Still would have been clearer to show her at least struggling against him, or even just tie her to a pillar instead, though.

agreed, though I think that was an issue of where they were shooting. If I'm not mistaken, those are tunnels in Cardiff castle, so very expensive t use and because of the location you can only bring in so much stuff and do so much to it. But a little more clarity would've been nice.

And yes, I'm sure you're right about what we are meant to infer about Sherlock and Donovan. But again, just one more line that provided some more direct hint about it would have made a big difference.</i>

And sort of on that subject, I've been interpreting some of Watson's lines about not wanting to be seen/wantign a sexual/romantic relationship with Sherlock as being not so much about the fact that they're both men but more about not wanting to date Sherlock because he's, well, Sherlock. And the line about 'people might talk' I didn't think was intended to be taken seriously, more on the order of coverign Watson's own embarrassment about emotion generally toward Sherlock (however one interprets their relationship).
Aug. 10th, 2010 10:28 pm (UTC)
I think that's absolutely right. Watson knows (or thinks he knows - he might be wrong, which is the fun of it)that whatever Sherlock is, he's way out his league; the line about "pets" was very cutting.
Aug. 10th, 2010 10:30 pm (UTC)
I don't really see what you see about Watson's embarrassment / denial being a response to Sherlock specifically rather than men generally. Maybe that would work if he was characterised as attracted to other men in the series, but he's not - in fact, he looked distinctly uncomfortable when Connie Prince's brother sat down next to him on the sofa, as well.

Yes, I guess the 'people might talk' line could be part of an established private banter between the two of them, perhaps even a quite fond or even slightly flirtatious banter. But it's still a joke which has been repeated at least once (and frequently more than once) every single episode, and not always when it's just the two of them present. As innerbrat has said, it's a joke which rests on society's general discomfort with same-sex attraction - and I'd rather not see that being perpetuated.
Aug. 10th, 2010 10:09 pm (UTC)
Some good points here. I think you're right about Moriarty emerging way too soon - presumably they decided that character had to be fitted in somehow, even in just three episodes. I've felt that 90 minutes is rather too long - I would have preferred 60 minute episodes, and more of them; it has felt as though there's been a bit of padding, especially in the first episode.
Aug. 10th, 2010 10:23 pm (UTC)
Yes - obviously Moriarty is iconic, and while they were working on the basis of three 90-minute episodes only, he had to emerge when he did. But it would have been even better to use a different format in the first place.
Aug. 10th, 2010 10:25 pm (UTC)
I do think you're expecting a lot in the first 3 episodes. Considering the degree of plot crammed in, especially to the third one, plus grounding the major frontline relationship, I really don't feel most watchers could have dealt with yet more sub plots. Unexplained things, like Sally's hostility, are also intriguing. They were clearly throwing in every sparkler in the bag to get another series; I imagine we'll get more minor character development eg Sally, in series 2. Anthea, I think you have to accept is probably just another brief Moffat Dream Girl cameo (she had a startling resemblance to Monica Bellucci :-) and frankly, I don't really begrudge him one of those across all 270mins.

Watson is quite deliberately everything Sherlock isn't. So while Sherlock doesn't give a damn either about sex with whoever or what people think about his sexuality, Watson is , quietly, and without it making him neurotic, apparently insecure about almost everything except his professional competences; his intellect, his boring life, his ability with women, the suspicion he might fancy an amazing man. I don't find this bad, in fact it's rather charmingly underacted by Freeman. And frankly I don't think anything he's done or said is either homophobic or atypical of someone who is after all a Home Counties former Army doctor! Drama would be very dull if every one was portrayed as a swinging Guardian reader (do such creatures exist?), no?

(I should say I'm saying this all as simply someone who really enjoyed this series - I'm not calling on what ACD wrote cos I ain't read it! or on earlier filmic versions come to that.)

I think ep 2 was an unfortunate mis-take on trying to update the Victorian orientalism and they'll note the fan reaction in future. But I do think some of the harping on about the anti-woman bias of this series has ben fed by unfortunate things Moffat has said and done while helming Dr Who. I get quite a different vibe off this series re gay isues at any rate, no doubt because Gatiss is half writing it. And tb absolutely honest, if I was looking for multiple strong women characters Sherlock Holmes might not be where I'd go!! Not every series has to be everything - and it would be true to the canon so I understand it if Sherlock was in the main a bromance. But I suspect a strong woman or two will come along and I think it's pretty good to have one already who survives, out the blue, a near death experience nd yet seems completely unfazed afterwards about continuing to associate with the author(s ) of her misfortune. Don't give up yet:)

Edited at 2010-08-10 10:25 pm (UTC)
Aug. 11th, 2010 09:53 am (UTC)
If I've expected a lot from this series, it's because it has achieved a lot, and promised even more. I have really enjoyed it overall, as I've said, but I do think there are some things it could have done better.

As for Watson, you're right that no individual comment he has made has been outright homophobic, or inconsistent with the character he is meant to be portraying. But the constant repetition of the 'not that there's anything wrong with that!' comments from him and others, coupled with the negative stereotypes in this latest episode, do cumulatively suggest that the writers are not trying as hard as they think they are to avoid perpetuating damaging tropes about queer people. That's not something I'm prepared to excuse on the basis that they had a lot of plot and characterisation to fit in, since it could have been solved simply by taking a different approach to the characters without actually requiring any more screen-time at all.
Aug. 11th, 2010 10:30 am (UTC)
I found Moriarty's wandering accent distracting and really irritating, he sounded as if he was trying to do an impression of Graham Norton on helium whilst being choked at times.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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