(SPOILERS FOR SHERLOCK ALL THE WAY UP TO "THE FINAL PROBLEM")
Television is generally regarded as being a writer’s medium. There are exceptions to the rule, and BBC’s Sherlock is one of them, but that’s not exactly a good thing. The brainchild of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (Well, the brainchild of Arthur Conan Doyle stolen away from the orphanage of Public Domain), Sherlock reinvents the classic Sherlock Holmes stories, leaving a few key details. Watson came back from a war, their nemesis is called Moriarty, women characters fade into the background…But hey, let’s just repeatedly drive this show into the grave.
Don’t get me wrong; the first series of Sherlock was ground breaking. Even through the second series all the way to the first episode of the third made for great television. That’s seven good episodes. Seven. Each series is three episodes long and each episode is feature length. Which is exactly both the draw and the problem with Sherlock, leading up to the most recent finale, The Final Problem.
There are huge delays between each series of Sherlock, and understandably so. Their stars are in high demand, starring in Marvel movies and Hobbit movies for example, plus their writers – Moffat and Gatiss – have their own writing and acting jobs in the interim. Moffat is currently showrunner of Doctor Who and, well, that’s a whole different article…
It also doesn’t help that when all comes together they have to pull together three feature length films, essentially. All from talented directors, which in turn is a saving grace that highlights the real key dilemma in Sherlock:
It looks fantastic, it’s acted wonderfully, and it’s written absolutely shocking.
Television is a writer’s medium. Sherlock is obviously more of the case of movies made for television. So of course, the directors get to shine. But how can the scripts still be so bad? It’s a question constantly on the minds of viewers of not just Sherlock but Doctor Who, also written by Moffat. Steven Moffat wrote some of the best episodes of post-2005 Doctor Who. Then he sort of…deteriorated as a writer. Maybe it’s the power, maybe it’s the pressure, maybe it’s just trying to do bigger and better.
Bigger and better is exactly the problem with Sherlock. And one could theorise that this and Moffat’s smug desire to be the smartest person in the room leads him to slowly become the less superior writer of Sherlock compared to what he once was. A Study in Pink is one of the best episodes of Sherlock and it was the first one. The Lying Detective in the most recent series is the most muddled, bloated, and painful episode so far. Both were written by Moffat.
This article isn’t just a one-man critique of Sherlock, though. It’s not entirely Moffat’s fault, not at all. And it probably isn’t all Gatiss’ fault. Problems lie in expectations, pleasing fans, the desire to surprise fans, and just generally writing oneself into a corner.
Across two series Sherlock went too OTT and tried way too hard to exceed expectations after blowing the Moriarty lead early into the game. When you’ve killed off Sherlock’s biggest nemesis (100+ years old spoiler), where do you go from there? It had a good lead focusing more on developing Sherlock and Watson’s characters and their relationship, not to mention also Gatiss’ Mycroft Holmes (Who needs female characters like Molly Hooper and Mrs Hudson? Shrink their screen time and throw them in the background!), but then you add the conundrum with Mary Watson, née Morstan, who starts off with good intentions…Then leads us down one of the threads of an eventual clusterfuck.
Several other places compare Sherlock’s downfall towards becoming more and more like a Bond film, and while I won’t personally say the same, I can see the point. Yes, the action and explosions and villains get more outlandish and it’s forever sexist, that’s solid comparison.
Sherlock’s problem is more just the fact it’s written with the dream of being where Bond is. On the big screen. And the BBC doesn’t quite have the budget for that. This can be seen in The Final Problem, the series finale, where explosions look cheap and cringe-y and we go to an Alcatraz for geniuses but see not one genius.
Sure, Sherlock and Mycroft’s sister (groan-inducing spoiler) is apparently a genius, and she’s locked up for being clever and for having the weakest motive for spiralling this out of control, but her schemes feel so flat and one-dimensional. As does most of the second half of Sherlock’s current run (There may be more episodes, but I hope not).
The show has become one where they constantly tease a return of Moriarty but never have the balls to do it. It makes an adolescent-minded fan-base squirm and clamour for a payoff we won’t get until the writers truly have conceded the fact they gave the game away too fast. They have created a fascinating reinterpretation of the character but have since relegated him to a swift death and way too many video teases. This is even highlighted by Eurus – the Holmes Sister – as she implements the shallow and pointless injection of Moriarty video clips during her needless Saw-like games.
The problem with all of Holmes’ nemeses post-Moriarty is that they are supposed to be Moriarty-but-better and really…Who gives a shit, they just want Moriarty. Charles Augustus Magnussen has a mind palace like Sherlock and gets shot in the face. Culverton Smith fills an episode that even Toby Jones can’t save because audiences are just left going “Why are you doing this again? What are you investigating? Why’s it only been 30 minutes, I’ve still got an hour left??” And Eurus Holmes…Needs a hug and someone to play with. Oh yeah, and she met Moriarty on Christmas Day once.
Sherlock has become a show of needless plot twists. The reveal of the third Holmes sibling being a sister and not a brother is nothing new in the world of writing. If anything, it’s welcoming to have that female twist in the world of underused one-dimensional female char-…Oh wait, they just did more of the same. Mary Watson being an assassin…Sure? Okay? Moriarty still being alive, or not, or he is! Or he isn’t…
Moffat and Gatiss revel in thinking they are smarter than their fan base. Maybe once they were, until you get hundreds of fan theories as to how Sherlock survived jumping off a hospital and faking his own death much better than anything they could have thought of. They are too caught up in their plots and their twists in the Sherlock Holmes tale that they forget to actually build characters. And they especially forget to build anyone that isn’t Sherlock or Watson. Mycroft is not a good defence to that point, as Gatiss is writing for Gatiss to act half the time.
Their narratives are contrived and disappointing. It’s not a good sign in a television show to check how much longer you have and it’s only been a third of the way through of a 90-minute episode. You can’t structure a show the way Sherlock is structured because TV isn’t structured that way, and neither is film. This is where things aren’t revolutionary at all, just messy.
As highlighted earlier, though, Sherlock shines in its direction and presentation. Which is the smoke and mirrors that hide the failures of the writing to the more casual eye. There is no doubt that Sherlock is one of the most inventively visual shows of recent times. From the way it visualises text messaging all the way to the way Sherlock thinks and solves cases, Sherlock has been ahead of the game. Even in the more recent, less amazing episodes, there are brilliantly shot and edited sequences like when Sherlock tries to function while being drunk, to Sherlock’s drug-addled thought process in The Lying Detective, where the mise-en-scène is so creatively used and subversions of what we’ve gotten used to prevail.
And yet with the writing we’re left with a bad taste in our mouths. Like some fan of Sherlock has tried to write Sherlock themselves but they think they can make it even smarter and cooler. Which, funnily enough, is already the original intention of Sherlock from Moffat and Gatiss compared to the original Conan Doyle. Layers of shallow plot contrivance and intelligent-sounding dialect make the less informed of audiences think they’re clever keeping up with things and make them feel like geniuses when they do the pointless thing of “guessing the twist/ending”.
The curious thing is, there shouldn’t be a disconnect between writing and directing. Even on television. We saw that with the first few episodes of Sherlock, but somehow we lost it. But Breaking Bad remained consistent. In fact, both elements just got better with that show. See any episode directed by Rian Johnson. Masterfully directed and with brilliant cinematography, all alongside powerful performances channelling strong scripts.
Not even entirely original shows continue the trend. Game of Thrones is one of the most engaging shows on television. Another television adaptation of novels from a well-loved and highly regarded writer in George R. R. Martin, Game of Thrones has once again remained consistent if not increasingly better. Westworld – a reinterpretation of the 1973 Michael Crichton-written film – has also received brilliant buzz. It doesn’t hurt that all those shows have more than just the two writers.
So why has Sherlock fallen so far so fast? Unfortunately, it’s style over substance, even in the writing. It’s no longer cool to just see Sherlock as a highly functioning sociopath. Sherlock Holmes as a character was never fun because of explosions or spies or assassins. It’s all about Holmes, and it’s all about Watson. That’s what made the dynamic and the show great in the first place, and the very last scene in The Final Problem reminds us about this. But it’s forgotten its way.
Much like how Sherlock has apparently forgotten and rewritten his traumatised memories allowing for retconned sisters and non-existent dogs.
Which is really fucking stupid.
Characters are stilted, and the cases needlessly complex with stakes and tension that just doesn’t translate well enough when we’ve seen it done elsewhere much better. The direction has surpassed anything has done, and the show fails to truly get at the heart of things and instead try to give everything a facelift.
But a body is nothing without a skeleton. And Sherlock is nothing without its writing. Ask Arthur Conan Doyle. He’s the one at the cemetery turning in his grave.
Then again, he probably cares the least out of everyone.