Wednesday, January 18, 2012

TV Review: Sherlock, Series 2

The first series of Sherlock was one of those genuinely surprising pleasures that no-one - especially the BBC which stuck it on in the middle of summer - seemed to expect would be half as good as it turned out to be. I don't recall it getting a lot of publicity, or much advance buzz, and the concept of a "modern day Sherlock Holmes" didn't really fill me with warm expectations, even given my pretty warm feelings towards Stephen Moffatt's run on Doctor Who. But how things change - the second series comes around with both leads enjoying growing profiles, a large expectation and a great schedule slot from the Beeb, as well as the promise of hitting three of the most famous Holmes stories in three feature-length episodes. So from unexpected pleasure to anticipated flagship, how does it fare second time around?

All detective stories are, to an extent, a Magic Trick. You show the audience your cards, shuffle them all up, and invite them to pick which card is the killer, then with a flourish, reveal it was a different card all along, but you should have known that, if only you were paying attention to the shuffle. Often these tricks are far simpler than they look - the classic "Country House full of suspects" is mostly an exercise in red herrings, and the more modern "Grisly Serial Killer Frenzy" seems to concentrate of rifling through body parts to rule out 51 cards out of the deck. This somewhat clumsy metaphor springs to mind because by and large Sherlock episodes are one long magic trick building to that flouish - ta-daaa! - at the end, the rest of the episode largely serving to obfuscate the clues in there to make you feel either stupid you didn't spot it or clever that you did.

But it's a great trick, and one routed as much in character as in the flashy on-screen graphical things that go on whenever Sherlock is having a think. The two leads, I suspect, could make a poorly written mess of a show feel compelling and watchable, and the fact that Sherlock is by and large a slick, well-written show is a happy bonus. It's classic, odd-couple stuff and the mix of the icy, distant intellectual Holmes and Watson's more grounded, emotional-intelligence makes it feel more like a double act than most interpretations' relegation of Watson to "that bloke who gets stuff explained to him"  and the show is at pains to play on the idea that these are two men who need each other for either to feel complete.

So, we have three stories - A Scandal in Belgravia, The Hounds of Baskerville and The Reichenbach Fall, which all use different tools to challenge or undermine our hero, in this case Sex, Fear and Death. All use the original stories to bounce off into slightly different directions, but all stay thematically close to the source material so as to still be recognizable. I don't particularly want to go into them in much depth, but a few words on each seems the least i can do!

Irene Adler is one of these characters that Holmes adaptations love to play with largely because she's one of the few well defined female characters in the stories and because she's one of the few adversaries that gets away. Here she's more in the Film Noir Femme Fatale mode - wielding sex as a weapon and oozing a charm and confidence that makes her dangerously attractive, not so much trying to out-think her enemies so much as stop them thinking straight themselves. As a story it does seem to loop back on itself a little bit towards the end, but in many ways its a perfect showcase for what the series is trying to do, with all the strengths and weaknesses that come with it.

I'm more conflicted about The Hounds of Baskerville simply because the original is, for me, the perfect Sherlock Holmes story - a conflict between superstition drenched gothic revival landscapes and the clean, late-victorian modernism of urban order and reason. There is a thematic purity that runs through "The Hound of the Baskervilles" that it's TV version doesn't quite manage, with its secret government labs and the like, and shifting the conflict to be an a tale in which your senses and emotions can be subverted to give you flawed input works really well in the context of the show...but still loses something as an adaptation. Don't get me wrong, I think it's a good 90 minutes of TV, and I don't have answers to this niggle, but it doesn't stop it niggling.

Finally, we have the series big "howdunit". Without going into too much detail on the final story I think thats a clever choice - with a 3rd series confirmed the traditional cliffhanger was never going to work and this is a great alternative, and one very much in keeping with the original stories (although I know Conan Doyle meant it when he wrote "The Final Problem"). How clever is the episode? I guess we'll find out when the series returns and some sort of explanation is provided.

Overall Sherlock is deserved success - in many ways it's all mouth and no trousers, a show of trickery and style rather than hard content, but I think it knows it, works to be that, so that not only are you distracted from the mechanics of what is going but you're disinclined to look because it's just a pleasure to watch the cards being shuffled, and the feel the glow of the conjurers charisma.