Wednesday, March 13, 2013

No, I Don't Like BBC's Sherlock

I get asked this maybe once a week, on a good week.  On a bad week, more.  I think so far, every person that I know has asked me at least twice.  I think friends from middle school that I haven't spoken to for over a decade have called me -- looked up my number and called me -- to ask if I like BBC's Sherlock. Then they hung up and called again to ask a second time.

The answer is no, I don't like it.
I mean, the premise is interesting enough.  Making things modern and all that.  Holmes uses an iPhone to look things up, he reports his solved cases on a blog, Dr. Watson just got back from service in Afghanistan (like the original Watson), the Hound of the Baskervilles is a chemical weapons experiment, etc. etc.  It's a neat enough idea, to adapt the series to the digital age.

I like that concept.  I'm not that much of a purist.  But it seems to me, if you want to make a movie or show about Sherlock Holmes, you cannot change the character of Sherlock Holmes.  Change anything else, but leave the archetypal detective the same.

Rather than the charming, socially clueless yet genial, bohemian and eccentric Holmes of the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle, instead we get an even more nasty, even more snarky and antisocial Dr. House.

Maybe I didn't read enough of the stories?  The Sherlock Holmes that I remember was constantly described by Watson as welcoming and accommodating.  Clients would come in, and rather than sassing off to them, Holmes would greet them cordially, offer them a place by the fire if they were wet, or in a chair to elevate their legs if he detected a slight limp, or cup of brandy if they seemed to have had a long ride in from the country (as he noticed by the slight speck of mud and a small twig of hay on their jacket).  Holmes would listen to their story patiently, usually interrupting only to ask questions that clarify the situation, then very politely tell them he would call them when new information turned up.

Of course, Holmes was also supremely confident in his abilities and completely upfront about the deductive failures of either his close friend Watson or of any of the police.  But he was not condescendingly arrogant, and he wasn't insulting or belittling, either.

The closest thing to rude that I remember Holmes getting is when a client would directly lie to him.  Holmes would immediately see through the lie, rebuke them for it, tell them to cut it out and tell the truth, and begin talking to them about the true details of the case.

Holmes was a gentleman.  He was weird and headstrong and brilliant, but in his own eccentric way he was also a gentleman.

And at this point, I need to ask why the Sherlock Holmes of BBC's new series is not an accommodating gentleman, and is rather a snarky, malevolent, and violent-tempered little boy who happens to memorize lots of information?

Why did BBC feel the need to portray him in that manner?

The answer to this, really, is what I want to talk about.

The primary characteristic of Sherlock Holmes is that he has almost supernatural powers of observation and deductive logic.  He can notice minute details, piece them together, and from them arrive at a complete picture of a person's motivation, or the facts of a case.  He uses reason in the same manner a normal person uses emotion, freely and intuitively.

To a modern audience, that makes Sherlock Holmes smart.  Intelligent.  Brilliant.  A genius.

The real Holmes wouldn't consider himself such; "not at all, Watson, my dear fellow!" I can almost hear him replying.  He solved the case sure enough, not because he was smart, but because the case was obvious once a particular fact was revealed.

The problem is with how modern audiences perceive intelligence.

In real life, the more education and understanding a person has, the more humble they are about what they know.  When I took Intro Physics, I was the flippin' King of Physical Laws, the mathematical universe bending to my whim.  When I finished Advanced Quantum (Phys 8800), I doubted if I could even tell you one unqualified true statement about the universe.  My professors will oftentimes just say "I have no idea and know nothing about that" in response to basic questions that are even about physics, just about a branch slightly different than their own.

On questions that they do know the answer to, however, they are completely forthcoming.  Just like Holmes is very detailed and precise when describing to Watson how he deduced from the black thread on the man's tweed jacket that the case was about a con man trying to cheat a widow out of her inheritance, people in real life who are very intelligent are normally very happy and very enthusiastic (as opposed to crude and dismissive) to tell you about the things they know well, yet hesitant to explain anything that they do not understand.

The real Sherlock Holmes is like this.

In American fantasyland, the more education and understanding a person has, the more it justifies them to act like a condescending jerkhole to every simple-minded peon with the temerity to question their intellectual pronouncements.  If intellectuals like time alone, it must be because they find the company of the weak-minded so tiresome.  If an intellectual understands something the little people don't, it must be because the little people are ignorant, uneducated, and unwashed.

compliments abstruse goose
Part of this problem is probably from the pseudo-intellegentsia offered us by the New Atheists of the internet.  These are people who like to use the forced anonymity of the internet to essentially bully and namecall.  Most of them aren't actually that smart, and yet value intelligence as foremost of the virtues.

The result is that any little bit they know - or think they know - becomes to them a cudgel with which to bash others, increasing their self-esteem in the process.

Most people don't know enough to call them on their bullcrap, so most people tend to see these sorts as possessing actual education and intelligence, as opposed depressive over-compensation.

Hence, when most people think of a brilliant and insightful detective/doctor/scientist, they think of someone from a 4chan forum.

And that's what BBC's Sherlock is.  He's a Mary-Sue right out of 4chan with his own show on network television.

And that's why I don't like it.


Grace said...

Hmm, interesting. I always pictured Holmes as having some form of Asperger's: so he isn't mean or spiteful (and in fact considerate in his own way), but because he doesn't think like most people, and doesn't have the same emotional needs, he can come off as abrupt, detached or even rude. He does better with clients because there's clear social guidelines in that situation (though even there I would argue one of Watson's purposes is to help Holmes deal with/host them effectively).

As far as arrogance and intelligence go, I agree with you that most highly intelligent people ARE extremely enthusiastic about telling others what they know (and rarely shy about admitting what they don't). But that doesn't matter for the public perception of intelligence, because knowing more than other people tends to make them perceive you as arrogant and condescending, regardless of your actual feelings.

I have a large vocabulary, and did as a kid too, and found that using "big" words in ordinary conversation really hurt people's feelings, because then they didn't understand what I was talking about, and that made them feel stupid (which meant that they didn't like me). Same goes for discussing topics that most people either don't understand or have little knowledge of (when you do): if you are obviously better versed than they are, it makes them feel inferior. They will perceive you as arrogant and condescending as a result, even when such a thought hasn't even occurred to you.

This is why many (most?) very clever people tend to deliberately mask their intelligence in common conversation (unless they have problems with social skills, like people with Asperger's). It's kind of like code switching, except instead of switching between dialect/slang and standard language, they are varying the complexity of their vocabulary and thoughts. Of course doing this is very tiring, so not surprisingly intelligent people prefer each other's company.

Reece said...

Most def. I'm pretty sure Sherlock was originally modeled after someone with Asperger's.

It's just sad that people can invalidate all the care taken by Doyle to show that Holmes is actually a very "polite" person with terrible, horrible social skills, and instead take the singular fact of his intelligence and then project on to it all the arrogance and belittling sarcasm of modern portrayals of the character.

Have you seen Doc Martin? I was wondering what you thought of that?

K said...

i agree with the idea that hes just an unlikeable ass on the show, it seems. cant watch that.

also, the whole deduction thing seems a bit try hard, to me. cant watch that either.

Unknown said...

I liked the old sherlock holmes by jeremy brett much better than this one.

dairyaday said...

I am so glad I found this post. I specifically searched the internet for "Sherlock sucks" and "Benedict Cumberbatch is an awful Sherlock Holmes." I agree with your perspective completely. The character written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is actually a good character, and this modern reiteration is severely lacking. You're right that the show runners must have felt the need to reflect society's acceptance of this "asshole" persona that infiltrates the whole of the internet. Cumberbatch says his lines as if he were reading a logical formulation directly from a comment section, rambling without pause and expecting the audience to follow as if the writing, when spoken, will translate. It does not because verbal communication follows different rules than writing. It requires an understanding of the receiver's understanding and ability to follow. The communication is live; the listener can not go over the words again as if they were written on a page. He must process as the person talks. Cumberbatch's delivery is a monotone and arrogant spewing of logical deductions which make no effort to educate the viewer on their level, instead only serving to showcase the actor's ability to spew out a monologue. I am not surprised since it seems viewers today don't pay attention to what is being said, just how it is being said, and if it sounds good then it is good. I however seek to understand the character and his thoughts. A shame these kinds of shows receive accolades when there are much better recreations of the original work. Robert Downey Jr. for example did a great job I thought. Simon Vance who does audiobook work also does an excellent interpretation of the writing. Compared to those two performances, this BBC production doesn't deserve any recognition.

Anonymous said...