This is my first ever piece for Hex Dimension, and I’m going to start as I mean to go on: by saying something stupid.
I found series three of Sherlock really disappointing. That isn’t the stupid part – that’s just my initial feelings and I know I’m not alone in them. The question is why. This series had the same brilliant writing and visual flare that it’s always had, and the performances were as good as ever, so it’s not a drop in quality. What I think, after wrestling with it for a few weeks, is that this series was simply too character-focused.
Too much focus on character
As I said, that’s clearly stupid. Character is what pulls us into fiction and makes us care about what’s happening. A strong focus on character is what makes people connect to their favourite programme – from Breaking Bad right down to My Little Pony – and weak character-work can prevent that connection from forming – like the early parts of Dollhouse. Character-focus is what makes good shows great, and Sherlock is no different!
The first series of Sherlock managed the impossible by capturing the nation’s hearts and minds in just three episodes. And, like any good story, it did it through its strong focus on character; we were captivated by Sherlock and John and their bizarre relationship. Series two pushed that even further, really exploring Sherlock’s sociopathy through people like Irene Adler and Jim Moriarty, and making his bond with Watson a big part of the plot. Finally series three, this latest series, sees our two leads forced to deal with what they mean to each other.
So what’s changed? If all three series have been big on character, why am I singling out this newest one?
My problem – my stupid problem, I remind you – is that the first two series explored the characters and their relationships through tight, focused, detective stories. We learnt about the characters, but we learnt about them through their efforts to solve mysteries. For all its focus on character, the actual plots were driven by action and intrigue, with the character stuff cleverly worked into that framework.
Learning on the job
We found out that Watson’s an adrenaline junkie by watching him in action, not by having him argue about it. We learnt about Mycroft by seeing him clash with his brother, not by having them hang out discussing how clever they are. Most importantly, we understood who Sherlock was by watching him deal with people and situations, not by having him announce “I’m a high-functioning sociopath!” every single episode. I swear they tried to make that into a catchphrase this year.
(Editor’s note: the first two series did a lot of showing, not telling, which is how detail and information should be added to characters and plot.)
My problem with series three is that it just isn’t a detective show any more. This programme about Sherlock Holmes, the most famous detective in all fiction, is no longer a detective show! They don’t solve mysteries or play cat-and-mouse with criminals any more, they just go about their (admittedly unusual) daily lives. The game is not afoot, because there is no game.
My favourite episode was the middle one – The Sign of Three – because there was an actual mystery to solve (and because drunk-Sherlock-vision was the funniest thing ever), but even there the case was weaved around the character-centric wedding plot, not the other way around.
As for the other two, there was technically a case to solve in the first, but it was incredibly weak and hinged on our supergenius somehow not counting the carriages of a train – even the mystery of Sherlock’s survival (which the episode seemed far more interested in) amounted to little more than “I called my brother and he sorted it out.” His Last Vow, the final episode, didn’t even have that, leaving the characters with no case to solve and no mystery to uncover – just a couple of obvious reveals and a “shock” ending that was telegraphed a mile off. Otherwise, with marital troubles and a Christmas gathering, it was just a weird character-drama about family.
Did we mention he’s a sociopath?
Maybe I am just being stupid, but the character work in this programme used to be clever, subtle, and layered beneath complex detective plots. In this series the character work was the entire plot, with only the occasional weak mystery bolted on the side. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I didn’t enjoy the soap-opera antics of Sociopath-Man and his angry sidekick, it’s just that it didn’t feel like Sherlock.