It's time for some serious talk. Maybe a little ranting. Enjoy.
Those Damn Brits: Sherlock and Literate Television
Why can't we have literate television on network television here in the United States?
I asked myself this question as I was watching the amazing new series Sherlock. In this new BBC series quintessential detective Sherlock Holmes and his faithful assistant Dr. John Watson are rebooted to modern day. As played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock is the same arrogant bastard who has created a career for himself as "police consultant." In the first episode of the series he meets up with combat veteran Dr. John Watson, who has returned from Afghanistan with a little PTSD and a limp. In classic fashion they team up to solve a mystery and end up moving into a flat together at 221 Baker Street.
When I first heard about this "reboot" I was filled with uncertainty. Is this what we really need? Another Sherlock Holmes? I just didn't see the point. Also didn't see why television needs a modernized version. There's a severely dumbed down version of CSI's that fill that niche. In the United States it seems we've shifted our crime fighters from cops to scientists. This makes sense completely because one relies on anti-heroes (The Wire, Homicide, NYPD Blue) and the other relies on the age old debate of Science or Nature (Bones, CSI). These have become comfortable formulas for the American public. In the last 10 years American audiences want to watch professionals doing their jobs well. This has led to the glut of CSI's and Law & Order's that dominate our television landscape. These shows are all the same. They are all a comfortable formula of crime fighters with an easy morality who do their jobs well.
Unfortunately, those type of shows aren't good enough for me. I want complexity. I want to be challenged. I want my television to share the same thrill that I feel when I read a great novel. "Literate" television for me includes the following aspects:
- -A narrative thru-line so that each episode feels like it's part of a bigger story.
- -A continuity that respects the fact that the audience knows when characters are being consistent with prior events.
- -Themes and motifs that are longstanding and lasting.
- -Effort on the part of the production team to create an interesting and fascinating world.
- -Complex characters that take more than a sentence to explain.
- -A world of complex moral values, which reflects our own.
Now just to be clear: I am not a television snob. I love television. Now more than ever it is the medium that reaches the largest audience and can have the greatest impact. However I don't think it's wrong to expect television to pander to highest common denominator, rather than the lowest. I feel as if by raising our expectations and refusing what's comfortable then the entire culture wins.
The only place lately that I've been able to be satisfied with the storytelling quality is in science fiction. I am confident that Lost will go down in history as one of the finest network television shows every produced. It not only demanded that it's audience think and pay attention but it never apologized for being smart. The short-lived Pushing Daisies was delightfully witty and charming. The show never sacrificed what made it so wonderfully original to chase ratings and audiences. To this day I still don't understand why American audiences passed it by. These days I have to go to cable to find novelistic storytelling that isn't science fiction. And even with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, it seems that I'm still chasing sci-fi to find the narrative challenge I crave.
I enjoy watching PBS, Masterpiece Theater, and BBC America aplenty. The educational bent of their programming does tend to get a little dry. However when it comes to "entertainment" programs PBS tends to import everything from BBC. As I understand it in the British Broadcast System each series is paid for in advance, so each series is guaranteed a definite number of episodes. A series will finish its run no matter what the ratings are. So every show has a chance to improve or go downhill. At least it will finish. The BBC never seems to compromise storytelling and character in the name of ratings. Their willing to do 18 part literary adaptations alongside comedy programming like Spaced. Both sides of the scale show the high quality value that seems absent from American network television. And each series is a complete compact chapter. When it's done, it's done. If only network television on this side of the Atlantic were willing to take those risks.
Which brings me back to BBC's Sherlock. In three 90 minute episodes writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss captured all the wonderful things about Sherlock Holmes with a post-modernist spin. In this modern world Sherlock Holmes is a crime fighter but also a complex human being. He works as a scientist. Purposely distancing himself from human emotion but still having a clear moral code. Moffat and Gatiss have found a way to twist Holmes arrogance into a sort of off-kilter nihilism.
How important is it to Holmes to be proven right? What is he willing to sacrifice? This uncertainty makes his final confrontation with James Moriarty in episode three wonderfully thrilling. Moriarty is equally scary due to his amoral code. Holmes can only be saved from the mutually assured destruction scenario presented by Moriarty because he refuses to be beaten.
Holmes has a keen sense of right and wrong, however he is fueled by an inner need to show that he is better than everyone. This arrogance is universal in those who are steeped in the scientific method.
Of course he is humanized by Dr. John Watson, who is a substitute for the audience. They are a great pair of equals in this adaptation. Watson has the skills of a soldier. He is a killer if it's necessary to save other human beings. Yet he is exasperated by Holmes lack of "caring" about those who are under the threat of the mad bomber in episode three. Watson fills in the gaps of humanity that Sherlock is missing within himself.
This is dynamic storytelling. So of course it's British. I'm just saying that it doesn't have to be.
Have a great holiday! Book Slave.