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'Sherlock' Is Divorced from Reality, Yet Deeply In-Tune with an Irresistible Alternate Reality

The modern Sherlock Holmes is so compelling because he is a modern intellectual appealing to audiences who, for the most part, live in a world dissociated from intellectualism.

In the past year, several Sherlocks have arrived on the scene, most notably Robert Downey Jr.’s action hero and the BBC’s sociopathic sleuth, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who recently made his way to the US via PBS. If the current flavor isn’t to one’s taste, other varieties are readily available. Sherlocks have trod the boards in London, entertained crowds at fringe festivals, and taken on a dinosaur on “mockbuster” Asylum’s DVD.

Although fascination with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant creation seems to be more fashionable than ever, the way Sherlock is portrayed says as much about today’s audiences as about this timeless character. In an age when opinion, rather than objective analysis of fact, seems to permeate everything online or onscreen, from supposedly hardcore journalism to reality-based entertainment, a character who dispassionately analyzes evidence and deduces logical conclusions is a welcome change. The latest incarnation, called Sherlock, certainly provides a way of looking at the world far differently than through the emotional filters and ratings-grabbing sensationalism bombarding viewers 24/7. This Sherlock is more single-mindedly focused than the most dedicated member of CSI, and deftly solves the requisite mystery, but Sherlock, more than the typical whodunit, gives viewers more to figure out.

Downey’s and Cumberbatch’s characters each reflect traits of the original consulting detective, but the resulting portraits from each production are vastly different. Downey’s Holmes of last holiday movie season is an intellectual, if highly cynical man of action, a brawny brawler on occasion, a potential lady charmer (at least as part of his fascination with a current case), and a player who sees life as an invigorating game. The BBC’s Sherlock is a pale shadow of such boisterous behavior. Instead, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock emphasizes intellect and becomes petulant (or emotional) only when someone or something threatens his work. Without a murder to keep his mind occupied, he mopes around the house, shooting walls as a result of his boredom. He avoids his brother, who has a bad habit of nagging Sherlock with jobs he doesn’t want to take, or childishly refuses to do as he’s asked. Beyond these lapses into undeveloped social interaction, Sherlock lives in his own world of the mind.

Making Sherlock Modern

The BBC’s incarnation both modernizes the character and removes him from modern life. Sherlock avidly uses technology as a means to gather and dispense information while on a case, but these tools merely assist him with observation and investigation. He isn’t one to chat on his mobile or become anyone’s Facebook friend. He seems appalled that so many people read Watson’s blog chronicling recent cases. For all that Sherlock lives in 21st century London, he still seems to come from another era, largely because his sensibilities are far removed from those who fervently followed all three episodes, whether on BBC or PBS. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is not an adaptation of a historic character, as was the 2009 film hero. Instead, this Sherlock is so compelling because he is a modern intellectual appealing to audiences who, for the most part, live in a world dissociated from intellectualism.

Sherlock doesn’t know the latest talk-show host or keep up with celebrity gossip. He seldom watches TV. He has a debit card, which he gladly lends to John to buy groceries, but when left on his own would leave the fridge empty. In fact, he might very well believe the primary reason to have a refrigerator is to store human heads for an experiment. He knows the information he needs to be able to get by in society, but he doesn’t take pleasure in technology or social interaction. Although that disconnection from society has always been part of the Holmes character, the fact that someone who lives with so much technology might not use it to keep up with popular culture or to develop a social network makes Sherlock increasingly a social outsider. He is an intellectual with a wealth of knowledge, but he is ignorant of all but basic socialization.

The very fact that a brilliant detective might not be entertainment enough for audiences more accustomed to watching fast-paced, thought-light television seemed a concern for some Holmes’ fans discussing Sherlock’s move from BBC to PBS. To some bloggers, PBS seemed a poor choice to generate interest in a series that attracted mostly positive British reviews and indicated it would be a future award winner. Some who posted on Sherlock forums feared that PBS no longer generated as many viewers as BBC America or other cable channels geared to a broader scope of entertainment. PBS seemed like the last bastion for “intellectual” viewers, not exactly a turn-on to get blockbuster film fans to tune in. Nevertheless, Sherlock has received critical acclaim in the US, too, especially among the academic crowd who like their detectives brainy and more than a little warped. But “brainy” isn’t why most viewers tune in.

Sherlock in a World of Dark Heroes

Like many recent lead characters in dramatic series, Sherlock can be a dark character who doesn’t easily fit categorization. Although audiences typically want to root for and like lead characters, they also get a perverse appeal out of watching the often-unlikeable (e.g., House, Dexter). The interest in dark television heroes is a continuing trend across dramatic genres (e.g., even ratings-pleaser Hawaii Five-O’s Steve McGarrett gleefully dangles a suspect high above Honolulu in one of the first episodes), and Sherlock creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are no strangers to characters who sometimes go off the dark end.

As often has been pointed out in reviews of Sherlock, one of Moffat’s recent re-imaginings is the Eleventh Doctor, the focal point of a less emotional, more “mind”ful interpretation of the long-running Doctor Who, but Moffat also created man-or-monster Jekyll. Gatiss not only has helped twist Sherlock into a new shape, but has written episodes of Doctor Who. Even the good Doctor’s adventures have frequently been less than child friendly in the past few years, whether under Russell T. Davies’ or Moffat’s tenure as showrunner, but a good deal of all modern fiction featuring science, not just science fiction, illuminates the darker side of human nature.

Sherlock clearly enjoys a good murder to unravel. He dispassionately focuses on the nature of the crime rather than on the victims. In one episode, he allows an old lady to remain terrorized by the bomber, taunting him to solve a puzzle within a specified time frame; the detective solves the mental problem well before the deadline but uses his extra time to “get ahead” on solving the bigger mystery of the man behind the bomb. Watson may be horrified by this revelation, but Holmes simply sees his action as a pragmatic way to buy time toward figuring out the bomber’s identity. True to the nature of a dark protagonist, Sherlock reminds John that he is not a hero and should not be romanticized as one.

Finding an Appropriate Label

Sherlock certainly fits within my definition of a dark hero (as I analyze heroes in my most recent book), but he also fits another television trend: making dark characters understandable or even acceptable, although they may be forever “Other” to the audience (or even other characters). In Sherlock, audiences are immediately on a first-name basis with the lead character, and Sherlock refers to his roommate as John. This more familiar (and modern) form of address deviates from the typical and traditional Holmes or Watson. Everyman John provides viewers with entry into the story, and the audience, like John, becomes fascinated with Sherlock because he is so different from other people. Perhaps Sherlock is, as he claims, a sociopath. Perhaps he is autistic. Or perhaps he is indeed a social “freak,” as at least one person in Inspector Lestrade’s office openly calls him.

Creating an acceptable context for Sherlock because he is so “Other” seems to be a common way for audiences and critics to approach this latest series. Although Holmes as a literary character often has been the subject of analysis and conjecture, Sherlock invites less commentary about his mental state than the way he fits into society socially. His mental abilities seem too foreign to be comprehensible, but his lack of social skills or even his potential to prey upon society as a sociopath generates a great deal of interest in the character. Sherlock, not the mysteries he solves, is the reason viewers want more episodes.

One of the most common ways to place Sherlock in a social context is to focus on his sexuality. In the introduction to the final Masterpiece episode, “The Great Game”, host Alan Cumming voices many fans’ speculation about Sherlock’s sexual orientation. “Gay? Straight? Bi? Who knows?” The episodes themselves hint what fanfiction writers long have slashed (as in male-slash-male relationship fiction, i.e., m/m or “slash”). Mrs. Hudson isn’t bothered if Sherlock and John are more than roommates, and although John tries to establish a romantic relationship with a woman, Sherlock's case-driven crises' thwart any opportunity for John to get some action (apart from chasing criminals). In the final moments of “The Great Game”, John jokes about Sherlock ripping his clothes off in a darkened swimming pool—no matter that Sherlock only removes the “bomber” jacket John is forced to wear. Such innuendo fuels viewer speculation that John might be the sole focus of Sherlock’s social and sexual interaction with humanity. If Sherlock were gay, he would be more human—and audiences could better understand him.

Intellectual is not a synonym for ideal or even desirable in our culture. In trying to provide an understandable context for Sherlock, audiences seem to have a difficult time comprehending someone with his mindset. Instead of identifying with or desiring his mental prowess, viewers often try to find common ground. A nifty visual device—flashing text messages on the screen when Sherlock has flashes of insight—not only modernizes the detective’s technology but makes him more accessible as a character. Viewers might not be able to think like Sherlock, but do share common technology—everybody texts. Similarly, Sherlock’s phrasing, and thus another way audiences learn about him, is revealed when he contacts his arch enemy via laptop. In a small way, viewers can connect to Sherlock via shared technology, not the thought processes leading to the communication.

For all that Sherlock is brilliant intellectually and has a highly developed (super)power of deduction, he still doesn’t know everything. In his blog, John notes what he believes is a startling omission in Sherlock’s organic CPU—the detective doesn’t know or care to know that the earth revolves around the sun. This tidbit becomes the highlight of John’s blog, the fact on which even Inspector Lestrade fixates. Sherlock, for all his emphasis on brain/intellect at the expense of any apparent heart/emotion, is not a perfect computer. He humanly selects what is important to remember, and his database differs significantly from everyone else’s.

Interestingly, the data Sherlock chooses to store are not limited to science, although critical thinking and scientific objectivity certainly are underscored throughout the first season’s episodes. Sherlock turns 221B Baker Street’s kitchen into a lab, full of experiments in progress. He values deduction and encourages John to think as often as he criticizes him for his lack of observational skill or failure to connect pieces of information. Yet, for all his reliance on science, Sherlock also finds an emotional outlet in the arts.

Sherlock often fails to show emotion at “normal” times—or has difficulty expressing emotion. After Moriarty leaves the pool where he confronts Sherlock, John has been separated from the bomb, and the crisis is momentarily averted, the linguistically precise Sherlock is at a loss for words. He stammers incredulously when he attempts to comment about John’s willing self-sacrifice so that Sherlock can escape. Music, in contrast, seems to be the one way Sherlock can connect with emotion—even if that emotion is a childish refusal to conform to his brother’s expectations. He menacingly brandishes a violin and attacks the strings during a face-to-face meeting with brother Mycroft.

That Sherlock chooses to remember music and cultivate an interest in the arts is an intriguing contrast with his otherwise stoic devotion to logic and science. (Music does require technical precision and is a unique language, but Sherlock does seem to play with great emotion that goes beyond scientific method.) Likewise, the chemistry between Sherlock and John indicates that the detective is still capable of forging a human connection, when he chooses to do so. For all that he is “Other” as an intellectual, Sherlock also displays some very human flaws and occasionally finds ways to display heartfelt emotion.

Current interest in Sherlock, perhaps more in the US than in the UK, doesn’t rely on the mysteries to be solved or the ongoing rivalry between Sherlock and Moriarty. It doesn’t matter that the characters have traveled in time to reside in today’s London or that the story’s pace has been updated, too. Sherlock may not realize that the earth revolves around the sun, but Sherlock revolves around audience perception of who the main character really is and how to label him in order to better humanize him. Instead of idealizing his intellectualism, audiences often prefer to remake Sherlock in their own image—focusing on what he doesn’t know as much as what he knows or trying to categorize him in order to make his behavior understandable. Sherlock may be successful because he unravels mysteries and reveals what is hidden to everyone else. Sherlock may continue to be successful as long as audiences like to unravel his character and speculate about what might be hidden inside.

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