Writing past cliche

I hope you’re following the new BBC Sherlock Holmes series. There is so much to learn from this marvelous mash-up of the Arthur Conan Doyle classic stories.

Today’s post is focused on what I believe is one of the two best things about the series. There are many other strengths of this TV series, but the two best are: The update to 21st century with the technology (smart, seamless and fun); and characterization. So off we go on the subject of this post: characters and cliche.

I know I will offend die hard Jeremy Brett fans when I say that in my opinion Sherlock Holmes’s portrayal has usually been fun, but cliched. (I didn’t see the Robert Downey film, though.) Who needs deep character when the superficial one grabs our attention? (Archie Bunker in All In the Family is another example of a weird protagonist delivering big entertainment.) But Archie cloys after awhile, and Sherlock Holmes is always the same, manic genius, not even slightly nuanced. Why did Sherlock Holmes endure? I think it was because the outrageous character of Sherlock was perfectly suited to the endlessly inventive mysteries he was called upon to solve. So great storytelling, despite a character who cannot surprise us.

You can agree or not, but I beg you to look at the Cumberbatch/Freeman duo, and the way these characters move beyond the old constraints.

What constraints? This one especially: Dr. Watson is usually the faithful sidekick without a believable agenda of his own. In other words, he isn’t a real person, or at least not a very interesting one. Sherlock Holmes is self-involved and deranged, without the ability to relate to others. Infuriating, fascinating for a couple hours… but I sometimes grew weary of the schtick.

However, now we have an adaptation that brilliantly moves beyond this charming conceit to bring some depth to the Holmes/Watson relationship. In other words, we actually get to have a little emotional involvement with the characters. I already liked Sherlock Holmes stories. With this BBC series, I love them.

Because they moved beyond cliche to character.

Now, instead of being merely a prop for the main character, Holmes, Watson clearly wants a friendship with him. He doesn’t get it, but he clearly desires it. When Holmes is being especially abrasive, Watson can get angry; alternatively, he gets back at Holmes with a dismissive impatience. Just the right dose of push-back, without watering down the essential sidekick role. (And season two, by the way, is much better than season one.)

As for the Holmes character, this portrayal has Cumberbatch occasionally aware of his emotions. And the brilliant part? When he notices these emotions he tries very hard to squelch them–but we aren’t sure he succeeds.  At these moments we see Holmes as someone hiding behind the demented genius. Like Dr. Gregory House, we start rooting for him to become just a little more human. We know it isn’t going to happen, but it’s fun to see Cumberbatch play with this.

It draws me in even further than the lovely plots do.

But I’m a sucker for a little ambiguity and emotion.

Take a close look at season two, beginning with A Scandal in Belgravia and last Sunday’s The Hound of Baskerville. Watch the interactions between Cumberbatch and Freeman.

A brilliant reinvention.



7 Responses

  1. WHM says:

    I completely agree. Irene Adler toying with Watson in a scene near the end of A Scandal in Belgravia was written and acted brilliantly (sort of SPOILER: and that scene isn’t really actually about sexuality — it’s about friendship, close emotional relationships).

  2. SuzanneG says:

    My Holmes interest was recently renewed by Richard Monson-Haefel’s Steampunk Holmes project, around the same time BBC brought their series to America. I’m enjoying the BBC version of Sherlock so much more than I remember enjoying the books when I was much younger. I was a bit apprehensive about bringing Sherlock into the 21st century, but it’s a refreshing take on the stories.

    What draws me to the TV version is the give and take, the interactions between these characters. Even in the few episodes doled out to us so far, there are moments of growth and realization for each of the characters. The Scandal in Belgravia episode was hot in a way the reader never feels in the original novel. In the Reichenbach Fall episode, there can be no doubt that Sherlock cares for a select handful of people in his life, and would literally do anything to protect them from harm. Kudos to Cumberbatch and Freeman for their nuanced performances. I want to know these men. To sit with Watson while he watches Holmes go into brainiac mode, knowing that he’ll be the first person Holmes calls when he deduces his solution. I want to watch the excitement build as Watson catches on to one of Sherlock’s wild ideas and starts the hunt with him.

    I’ve been having so much fun rediscovering Holmes and Watson that in April and May I did a series of posts about the Steampunk Holmes project and the BBC series. So it was great fun to find another Sherlock Holmes fan here. Thanks for the fun post.

  3. Kay says:

    So glad you agree. This series is such a pleasure, it make me very curious about the writer(s) and how the plots are recreated in these shows. It appears so seemless, it’s hard to believe that it would be a team of writers. If anybody has the interest to pursue this, I’d like to know.

  4. Catana says:

    Reading this post made me realize why I found the season one incredibly boring and have no intention of getting the second season. Unlike Holmes addicts, I never found the original stories very interesting, so I haven’t read many of them. What got me interested was Jeremy Brett’s portrayal. Which doesn’t make me a rabid fan who will automatically reject any other interpretation. The thing is that Brett made Holmes interesting for me, while Cumberbatch (in spite of my liking him very much as an actor, pre-Holmes) doesn’t. The new series is frenetic and shallow, so much so that I can’t even find anything positive to say about it.

  5. Kay says:

    Once again it strikes me how personal story reactions are. I’ve had many similar disagreements with close writer friends over books that one person loved, the other–not so much. Incredibly, to me, one of those stories was George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. Some people just despise it, while I thought it was, at least early on, brilliant.

  6. Jared Kelsey says:

    I agree with you Kay. Cumberbatch is a fantastic actor and does a brilliant job with Holmes and the writers of this reinterpreted series have done an outstanding job writing both Holmes and Watson and putting them in the 21st century.

    This new American series “Elementary” is such a let down. They had a lot of great ideas in dealing with Holmes heroin addiction and the repositioning of Watson’s role and gender. But it seems like they have missed huge opportunities and it ends up feeling flat like yet another police procedural.

    I have refused to watch either of Robert Downey Jr’s films as Holmes because it’s SO overly Hollywooded. The previews of those films we so bad I knew what a travesty of the Sherlock Holmes spirit those films would be.

  7. Kay says:

    Thanks, Jared. I skipped “Elementary” for exactly the reasons you found fault with it.

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