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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.


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