Monday, January 20, 2014

Mad About -- Or At -- "Sherlock"?

Twenty-four hours ago, I would have waxed eloquent about the pitch-perfect brilliance of the contemporary BBC "Sherlock," starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Updated to the 21st century, with all the bells and whistles (texting, advanced forensic science, cool special effects), "Sherlock" nevertheless stayed true to the canon, full of nods and winks, and, in fact, whole passages and set pieces borrowed from Arthur Conan Doyle. The first two seasons of this new incarnation of our favorite detective felt like a love letter to Sherlockians. Unfortunately, the first episode of Season Three, "The Empty Hearse," felt more like hate mail.

As the whole world knows, Sherlock dove off a building at the end of the last episode, forced to commit suicide by Moriarty, whose lethal network promised death for Sherlock's only friends (John Watson, Mrs. Hudson, and Inspector Lestrade) if he didn't comply. We also know, however, that Sherlock is still alive, since we saw him eavesdropping at his own graveside in the last shot of Season Two. Fan interest has reached fever pitch, mostly focused on "howdunit," since unlike in the Doyle original, this time we actually saw the death, and saw the dead body. Ah, the hubris of trying to top Arthur Conan Doyle! In this case it has led to farce where there should have been real emotion, and a winking condescension instead of a respectful nod to the fans.

There are so many wrong notes in "The Empty Hearse" I hardly know where to begin. One of the few scenes that does not strike a false note occurs between John Watson and Mrs. Hudson, when John revisits Baker Street early in the episode, after almost two years incommunicado following Sherlock's apparent death. Mrs. Hudson's plaintive, "One phone call, John!" prefigures the larger betrayal of John by Sherlock -- leaving a friend alone to suffer grief that could be assuaged. But there is easy forgiveness and lovely chemistry between Mrs. Hudson and John. Between John and Sherlock? Not so much.

After Sherlock is rescued by Mycroft (huh???) from an unfortunate Serbian situation and brought back to London, Sherlock decides it will be fun to surprise John at the restaurant where he's dining with his almost-fiancee, Mary. For unknown reasons, Sherlock pretends to be a French waiter, complete with a goofy Inspector Clouseau accent, glasses, and a pencil moustache, and waits for John to recognize him. John's response is, understandably, fury. What is not understandable is Sherlock's explanation, or really lack thereof, as to why he kept John in the dark for two years about his apparent death. (By contrast, the various explanations of how the death was faked are fun and farcical and inconclusive in a marvelously tantalizing way, perhaps the best thing about the episode.)

To be fair, writers Stephen Moffatt and Mark Gatiss have really just fallen into the huge chasm in the Doyle canon: Why did Holmes leave Watson to grieve for three years after he disappeared at the Reichenbach Falls?  In Doyle's story, "The Adventure of the Empty House," Holmes insensitively admits that he feels he had "an extraordinarily lucky chance" to eliminate Moriarty's henchmen, who would all be seeking vengeance if they knew that Holmes was alive. Doyle's version glosses over Holmes' lack of trust. His secret was known only by Mycroft, because, as Holmes says to Watson, "I feared lest your affectionate regard for me should tempt you to some indiscretion which would betray my secret." But, after all, Holmes' life was at stake. Our 21st century Sherlock has no such excuse! He vaguely mentions to Mycroft that he was cleaning up Moriarty's network. He doesn't explain himself to John at all, but he does admit that he let a couple of dozen other people in on the secret. Worse, Sherlock continues to play with and mock John long after it should have been clear, even to a sociopath, that he was being hurtful.

All might have been forgiven at the end, however. [SPOILER ALERT] After (sort of) reconciling when Sherlock saves John from being burned to death in a Guy Fawkes bonfire, our boys eventually uncover a plot to blow up Parliament. They find themselves in an abandoned subway car which is itself an enormous ticking bomb, and Sherlock confesses that he is unable to defuse it. Apparently facing certain death, Sherlock deeply apologizes for the hurt he caused and asks John to forgive him. In Doyle's famous words, John says, "You were the best and wisest man I've ever known. Of course I forgive you."

Finally! Genuine reconciliation, right? Wrong. Sherlock, shoulders shaking with laughter, reveals that the bomb has been turned off all along. (Because of course it had an off switch.) He has tricked John into forgiving him. So much for rebuilding trust, which both actors and writers have spoken of as the theme of this episode.

No wonder Cumberbatch and Freeman, in character as Sherlock and John, look so very sheepish in the last shot, as they face the press outside 221B! They must know, or at least suspect deep down, how bogus this whole episode has been. The case, a simple terrorist plot, was completely lame, hinging on the discovery of an "unknown" abandoned tube station directly underneath Westminster, along with very few deductions by Sherlock. In spite of -- or perhaps because of -- lots of cute and even intriguing touches (for instance, the first appearance of Sherlock's parents, played by Benedict Cumberbatch's real parents), the whole episode rang false, way too arch, and downright mean-spirited. Bottom line: "the best and wisest man" John Watson has ever known would never be so cruel.

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