Sherlock: A Suitable Case for Treatment

Sherlock TV series. 2012. Hartswood Films for BBC2, co-producer WGBH Boston.

A Study in Pink

The Blind Banker

The Great Game

A Scandal in Bohemia

The Hounds of Baskerville

The Falls of Reichenbach

A postmodern take

Gotham on Thames

The Purloined Detective

The pleasure of puzzling things out

By Peter Hulm

Did Shakespeare's audiences watch his plays for the pleasure of comparing his take on King Lear and Hamlet against others' versions?

I don't know, but I've not read of any records from Elizabethan times comparing Shakespeare's writing of the narratives with the original stories.

However, it's certainly one of the major deliberate pleasures offered by Sherlock, the 2012 updating of Conan Doyle's classic detective stories.

In this British television refashioning of the Holmes stories, "A Study in Scarlet", the first Holmes book, becomes "A Study in Pink". "A Scandal in Bohemia" has been remade into "A Scandal in Belgravia". "The Hound of the Baskervilles" appears in 2012 as "The Hounds of Baskerville", where Baskerville is a bio chemical weapons research establishment on Dartmoor.

picture from wikipedia

To cap it all, Holmes's "death" at the Reichenbach Falls is refashioned in The Reichenbach Fall. We are teased at the beginning with a view of Turner's 1804 The Falls of the Reichenbach, a "missing" painting from the number he actually painted.

The second series has great fun with Holmes being photographed in a deerstalker — just a hat he happened to grab to escape press attention — and then becoming famous for it.

Liberal correctness

Viewers, and critics, were teased — by the couple of Doyle aficionados who wrote the series — to recognize the jazzy variations on the original tales. One female critic complained that Irene Adler was sexualized in "Belgravia", compared to "Bohemia", and less feminist in 2012 than in 1902.

The point is not the validity of the complaint — one author has strongly defended himself — but the Guardian critic seemed to expect the updaters to be politically correct in the most liberal fashion.

In fact, the updating made Irene Adler a professional dominatrix (a nod to the 'British disease' of S&M), a woman who keeps scandalous photos of her clients as protection. There were complaints of nudity in a programme shown before 9 p.m., but this is conventional British prudery applied in the wrong place, against the show rather than the act.

From CCTV to psychotherapy

From the start we are teased with the "modern" Holmes and Watson, against Conan Doyle's. As the story progresses with cellphone trickery and texting, CCTV surveillance, GPS tracking and a psychotherapist, we seem clearly meant to register the differences from life in Conan Doyle's late Victorian London (though the last Holmes story was published in 1927).

The changes in technology are not the whole story, of course. We start with battle scenes involving British soldiers in some hot, dusty warzone, asserting the 'reality' of the present-day narrative rather than the mythic proportions endemic in "Watson's account" in the Conan Doyle version.

Then the story cuts to Watson in a psychotherapist's office. The black woman professional (we are meant to pick up on the "democratic" as distinct from "imperialist" narrative) suggests he should be blogging about his experiences as part of his therapy for what (we learn) she believes is a psychosomatic limp.

Debatable therapy

How trendy. Even better would have been Twittering. But we are left without answers to the question of whether she thought that publicly speaking of his problems was the therapy, or that simply writing his experiences down (i.e. just for himself) would have enabled him to overcome his traumas.

Both solutions are questionable. See Judith Lewis Herman's work, where the important thing is to have someone who knows you and listens, rather than have you document your life and feelings to strangers.

Are we meant to see the psychotherapist's assertion as a good idea or a bad one? She is later described as a bad diagnostician — Watson's problem is not war trauma but lack of stimulation, and Watson abandons his walking stick when he is engaged in an exciting pursuit, as Holmes points out.

This is a likewise implausible invention of modern times: trauma is in fact disabling rather than simply something we cast aside.

However, the creators, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, presumably found the idea of modern boredom more appealing to an armchair audience as the spur to dangerous and criminal activity (their invention), rather than a meagre Army pension. Watson, in this series, is much closer in personality to Holmes.

The blog later becomes the device which makes Holmes a celebrity, treated as an equivalent of newspaper account by the earlier Watson (equally questionable as a device).

Truth and fiction

Are we meant to agree with the therapist about blogging? Or to recognize the way in which public self-presentation and 'performance' has become a standard part of postmodern life. It hardly fits for a 32-year-old ex-Army doctor even today, however much you might make the argument in relation to an 18-year-old.

In any case, it does not jell with what we know of how the Army spins the experiences of soldiers overseas. When there are fatalities to report, we read the tributes from colleagues and family speaking of the soldier's dedication.

But when a soldier dies from friendly fire, as in one recent prominent case, the truth is hidden even from the family, and a Faulklands veteran who wanted to speak of the mistakes and suffering of battle was threatened with injunctions when he tried to tell his story. It is only 30 years afterwards, at the end of 2012, that we have learned that the Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was ready to negotiate in 1982 rather than invade.

From a one-liner in a psychotherapist's office to Cabinet-level politics might seem a big leap. But the 2012 Sherlock stakes its claim to attention on the 'reality' of its presentation (the story itself was hardly credible).

A Study in Pink

I caught up with the British critics' most highly-rated series of 2012 when it appeared on Netflix, so I don't suppose I need issue a spoiler alert about my discussion from this point on.

The first episode, from 2010, loosely based on A Study in Scarlet, was about a taxi driver (Phil Davis) with a fatal aneurism, separated from the children he loved by a split with his wife, who agrees to kill people for money to go to his children.

Comparing A Study in Pink with its original, we discover that the killing in the Conan Doyle version is for revenge, and Moriarty is not mentioned. But the killer is a cab driver with aneurism in both versions.

Gambling with death

Also common to both is the scarely believable device of offering victims a choice between a poisoned pill and a harmless one and challenging them to gamble.

Watson's Afghan service, his shoulder wound, his shortage of money and the means by which he comes to meet Holmes, and Holmes's whipping of a dead body to see how long after death it would register bruises (definitely unlikely today), all come from the original Holmes Study.

From Watson as the commonly depicted rather thick old military type (apparently an invention of Nigel Bruce), we can take pleasure today in seeing him transformed into a rather precise, realistic and sharpshooting medical man, more like Conan Doyle's original. The psychosomatic leg problem is a jokey reference to Conan Doyle's later identifying Watson as having suffered a leg wound rather than shoulder injury.

Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs) is no longer the fawning old biddy who mothers Sherlock. Instead, she is a competent manageress and given lines protesting that she is their landlady not their servant. Of course, in line with British advertising standards about women, she still serves the men, and in later episodes becomes much more the standard Cockney landlady.

There's even a reversal of the original plot in the "Rache"/"Rachel" story twist.

Story holes

In contrast to the original, we see Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) torture the dying man in order to learn that Moriarty was the man who hired the killer.

But we never learn why the various 'suicides' were chosen, or how the cab driver got hold of the poison (presumably from the arch-villain Moriarty, later characterized as a "consulting criminal" as Holmes is described by Doyle as a consulting detective). These discrepancies do not seem to matter to modern tale tellers.

The cab driver is unnecessarily picked off by Watson. Holmes heavy-handedly protects the doctor from the police via the old device of pretending to have said nothing immediately after telling the police the man was killed by an excellent shot, and looking over at Watson — Freudian slips are never more obvious, except to the forces of law and order. It's almost as if the authors have something against psychotherapy.

A Guardian reviewer also pointed out the many motivational shortcomings of the first episode.


In place of plot, what we do see as a denouement are Holmes and Watson marching off together as buddies without a further thought to the victims whose deaths had been the main question of the first half. "We can't giggle. It's a crime scene," says Watson. Hollywood calls such buddy relationships a bromance.

Instead of the original Conan Doyle intrigue we have a confrontation with the sinister brother of Sherlock, Mycroft (played by co-author Mark Gatiss), who appeared in three Conan Doyle stories as an unspecified secret service or government officer and in 2012 with an overcoat and a furled umbrella.

There are running jokes about whether Sherlock and Watson are gay partners ("that's perfectly fine"). From The Independent in May I learned this was a wink-and-a-nod to viewers aware of the practice of 'shipping' (imagining their drama heroes in the relationship — geddit?) that their screen activities seem to imply. From the broadcasters cafeteria to your screen. These guys are sly jokers.

Instead of Sherlock's pipe we see nicotine patches ("a three-patch problem"), apparently in deference to Government guidelines on depicting smokers on television in our times.

Smart parodies

The scenes of Sherlock's rapid-fire deductions are amusing parodies of Conan Doyle's scenes even though we disbelieve the basis for his deductions immediately we hear them.

To be fair, Conan Doyle's chain of reasoning was equally specious and the stories often a thin as this one. But did he ever declare something as ludicrous as Sherlock's claims that drunken cellphone owners always batter the power socket of their phones while ordinary users don't?

This is almost winking at viewers to let them know not to take it seriously, at the same time as we swallow the idea that Sherlock's mind races along making connections other people would miss.

Give credit to Steven Moffat, however, for smartly adapting the deduction scene from a pocket watch to a cellphone in the 21st-century Holmes.

In a wink to modern experience of London, Holmes and Watson also discover that it is easy to catch up with a cab in the city streets, even on foot.

But it's a notably modern notion to play on the idea that the authorities (Mycroft) are as sinister as the villains (Watson even mistakes Mycroft for Moriarty).

Plausible fantasies

In a time where virtually all we learn about the outside world is mediated by one channel or another, popular forms of culture (news, fiction, game shows, video games, the Internet, thrillers and science fiction) work through plausible fantasies of how our lifes are organized.

Television speaks to an audience that is not expected to be as geeky as videogamers or Internauts. As a result, producers tend to paint technology as all-powerful, manipulated by the ultra-smart (rather than the ultra-nerdy) and powerful. Typically in Sherlock, then, the battle is psychological (equally suspect to a half-educated audience) between the cab driver and Sherlock, and settled by a gun (echoes of American series).

Nobody likes you

In standard U.K. TV fashion ("it intensifies the drama"), the relationships are fraught — even between Holmes and Watson — rather than realistic. It's perfectly in line with the paranoid phantasy that no-one likes you. It also obviates the need to deal with the question of how to deal with friendship. Harold Pinter has a lot to answer for.

In Sherlock's world, outside our fortress homes for a conventional family, we enter a society of surveillance, where drugs are easy to obtain, where lesbianism, homosexuality and illicit affairs are the norm, gambling is a way of life, powerlessness and despair is to be expected, and the only way to restore normality is with a gun.

Forgive yourself for immobilism

Nodding to all these exemplars of modern life, the series does not need to make its manipulation of such symbols credible. The writers count on our 'reading' the indicators, and feeling the threats evoked, without having to expand on them. As Jean Baudrillard noted, one of the functions of contemporary television is to exculpate us for our immobilism.

No wonder then that the climatic scene of "Act I", when Sherlock declares that the presumed suicides are all murders, features an unhappily married woman who has a series of affairs and came up for a presumably wicked day in the city from Cardiff (where the series was filmed).

This is the point where suddenly words flash up on the screen as if we are reading Sherlock's mind, rather than texts on a cellphone as before. All the dangerous temptations of modern life here come together, when television can also read your mind.

You are the cabby

No wonder either that the major plot development in the second half is the recognition that the killer is a cabby. "No-one ever thinks about the cabby," he declares. Palpably not true (I nearly always find myself talking to cab drivers), though a famous case in the U.K. last year involved a cab owner who over 30 years targeted women through his job. In the upper-middle class Britain of today, it seems and the writers are telling us, executives do not talk to their drivers.

However, 'the anonymous figure in the crowd' can also be the television spectator, who can thus take over the role of the killer if our phantasy life requires.

What motivates murder?

What then are the causes for murder this series suggests are legitimate? "Love is a [...] vicious motivator," Sherlock says at one stage.

The killer replies that he has "a sponsor", as if he was a marathon runner for charity.

But the recurring leitmotif in the pilot is "boredom". After Watson's motivations are exposed, the black woman sergeant (whose affair with a pathologist is outed by Holmes) asserts that Sherlock is dangerous because "psychopaths get bored."

The killer tempts Sherlock (it's Sherlock and John not Holmes and Watson in modern-day London) back from the exit door (and gets himself shot by Watson for it) by offering the detective the excitement of a gamble. Sherlock gets bored, he asserts, but the chance of taking a poison pill would not be boring, he says. And Sherlock does not deny it.

Nor would the TV couch potato. But, in contrast to us, Sherlock was ready to try the pill.

The Blind Banker

In episode 2 of the first series, Holmes is less like House, the contemptuous doctor from the series of the same name, and more like the manic Dr Who. Both writer/producers were authors on the long-running sci-fantasy series and used directors from Dr Who on episodes).

In the first series House is split between Holmes (the cynicism) and Watson (the walking stick). The writers insist on their fractured personalities, and the "gay couple" joke has a serious side to it: together they make up a whole person. The grin of complicity between them at the end as they walk away from the crime scene is almost a celebration of the two sides coming together permanently.

Don't forget the coat

Holmes's £1350 ($2000) woolen trenchcoat was much more in evidence than in the first episode. The retailers were apparently persuaded to put the model on sale again before the end of the series. It is not known how many more they sold at that price.

This episode trades in Chinese exoticism (pre-Arabic Souzhou numerals, a Chinese circus, a mysterious and powerful criminal gang). As before there are a series of apparently unrelated deaths that Holmes has to explain. One death is not enough in the modern world.

The story draws on The Valley of Fear for its coded messages and The Adventure of the Dancing Men for pictorial ones. The markings on the feet of gang members are similar to those in The Valley of Fear, as is the story of attempting to escape from a secret society and being tracked and killed in England. The ciphers also come from the "Dancing Men". The locked room puzzle comes from The Sign of Four. Plot cannibalization is a form of homage in postmodern thrillers, and makes the serious point that plots are usually artificial constructs rather than mirrors to nature.

Once again, the key to the mystery is a hidden sexual relationship, while Watson's relationship with a fellow doctor (Zoe Telford) put him (and her) in jeopardy. A Radio Times reviewer, David Butcher, accurately described her as a strong female "wasted on damsel-in-distress duties". Once again, the women were pushed into the background. Maybe it's an advance on being a blank, as in most of Conan Doyle's stories.

In Conan Doyle's account the character of Holmes is the fundamental puzzle and the real interest of the stories. In 2010 the challenge is to make present-day London mysterious and intriguing. Conan Doyle was able to cloak his world in fog and pre-electric gloom. The air today is cleaner but as a result the true ugliness and banality of the city is revealed.

The Great Game

After House and Dr Who, or mystery story followed by adventure story, the third episode broadcast in 2010 offered us Holmes as horror tale.

Incorporating the legend of the Golem as superhuman killer, the third episode of the first series is notable for bringing in someone who outacts Cumberbatch in weirdness, Andrew Scott as "Jim" Moriarty — Silence of the Lambs reloaded.

The episode emphasizes the vulnerability of the victims, and their randomness except as exemplars of the types mother, pedestrian, child and old woman. Moriarty first appears as the slightly fey boyfriend of the forensic technician Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey), misleading Holmes into declaring him a homosexual.

Gay lack of pride

Being mistakenly thought gay remains a recurrent theme of the episodes (in the final episode of the second series, Watson finds himself being labelled in the tablods as a "confirmed bachelor").

As in the previous episodes, the authors rely on the "speed" of the staging to make up for what the stories and events lack in credibility. We do not learn how Moriarty persuaded Watson to don an explosives-packed jacket and confront Holmes, or why the others were chosen — and how.

This episode was notable for its concern with grammatical correctness in speech, and the "democratization" of minor characters. It was written by Mark Gatiss, the upper-class Mycroft in the series. The tortured public school swot finally gets to give New Britannia its comeuppance by being a grammar Nazi and leaving a lout to be "hung".

For aficionados, the Wikipedia article about the episode lists nine possible allusions to Conan Doyle's original stories.

Stereotyping the cast

As the first of the series to be filmed, its stereotyping was perhaps the result of an attempt to make an immediate impact (though it involves a pink cellphone from "A Study in Pink"). In place of the Baker Street Irregulars, Holmes has an "Army of the Homeless" to help him, and he engages a graffiti artist to help with the ciphers.

Gatiss obviously likes verbal play. "Meretricious," says Watson at one point. "And a happy New Year," quips back Holmes, who also enjoys a pun. If that's not an indicator of the benefits of an elite education, I don't know what is.

In contrast to the earlier episodes, the crimes are unrelated and we do not learn why Moriarty might be interested in having Holmes solve them. Once again, Sam Wollaston in The Guardian chipped away at the holes in the plot, but he also picked up on Moriarty's Graham Norton side as "a mash-up that totally works".

"What doesn't is this," complains Wollaston: "If Moriarty's guys, who've all got their laser sights trained on him, shoot Sherlock quickly, surely he won't set the bomb off? Do bombs really go off if you shoot them? And what are all the flashing lights on the bombs for? Just so you know they're bombs, I suppose."

A Scandal in Belgravia

Irene Adler is supposed to be almost as wily as Holmes, but with social graces. As such, she calls up memories of other Sherlockian figures who have regularly launched new series on television. Leaving aside Jeremy Brett, for my money the best of them all in his superciliousness and cerebral rage, we have in recent years had Tim Roth as Cal Lightman in Lie to Me, which had 11 million audiences in the U.S. when it launched on Fox in 2009 but lost nearly half of them before it was cancelled in 2011. Sherlock, by contrast, regularly had 10 million viewers in the U.K.

In Lie to Me Tim Roth was much more the applied psychologist as superhero, his bandy walk an affront to all sports coaches, his Watson a rather bemused female colleague. He had a daughter at home and a shady and tragic past. It's almost as if the series creators had written a deliberate variation on Sherlock. But it failed to create a picture of society that viewers could identify (fantasize about).


On CBS Jonny Lee Miller gave us Sherlock as a recovering drug addict in New York in Elementary, with Lucy Liu as Watson his minder. This was much more like a police procedural, disappointing critics, but, in one good joke, asked how he found out a fact, replies: "Google. Not everything is deducible."

The question all these series ask is: does this person give us a Sherlock Holmes for the present? And the answer is always: No, but a version of the old Sherlock Holmes for today. The commercial system forces the question on us. Sherlock is a brand, and the technique is similar to advertising's: the excitement of shopping is as much part of the pleasure as of owning, which in fact tends to be much less satisfying. And so we learn to buy and buy again.

Hamlet, the Ur-Holmes?

Contrast this with seeing various productions of Shakespeare's plays. The variations play a role in the publicity but not so great a part in our experience. What counts is how much the production brings the play to life, that is, its variety and intensities are fully brought to the stage or screen.

In this sense, David Tennant's Hamlet in 2009 was notable for its Holmesian energy, while Patrick Stewart's Claudius in the same production was as human and vulnerable as we have never seen the king before.

Hamlet, of course, has the trickiness we admire in Holmes, the lightning wit and the blindness to other people's suffering except in a general way (Yorick was "a fellow of infinite jest"). He faces the same kind of conundrum as Holmes, though he is given the answer in the first scene of the play, and the question is really: will he turn himself into Holmes? Which he does, to his downfall.


Irene Adler, in the new version, is more of a reworking of Hamlet's mother than the victimized and abused figure of Conan Doyle's story. Lara Pulver came to Sherlock from the award-winning intricate British espionage series Spooks. In key with this long-running series, the Sherlock episode adopted the gloss, the jokiness, and the pleasure in shockability (predictably the Daily Mail was shocked), found in "sophisticated" drama.

You may wonder why Irene Adler ended up nearly being executed in Pakistan when there were no earlier indications of links with terrorists, but it enabled Holmes to appear and rescue her in an echo of recently revived "caper" films from the 1960s and 70s.

It's probably crass to complain about inconsistences and tonal failures in such an all-knowing series. It just shows you don't "get" it, if you take it seriously as drama. If you do get it, anything is OK if the script keeps you entertained for the moment you see it onscreen.

We had royal scandals, Government involvement in an attempt to hush-up scabrous practices, and nudity (both by Adler, and Holmes in Buckingham Palace!. The story might seem ripped from the newspapers' front pages in 2012 (as with Spooks (MI-5 in the US).

But the earliest scenes of Sherlock told viewers it had none of the muckraking ambitions of The Wire, for example. And in the middle episode of the second series, the fun Gatis had with the changes he could make in the original story are a sheer delight.

The Hounds of Baskerville

It is impossible to discuss this episode without giving away what happens. Those for whom this is important should stop now.

The Hounds turn out to be scientists based at Baskerville Research Facility who were earlier involved in a U.S. secret project that seems inspired by the C.I.A.'s LSD experiments. The dog that features is a pet.

Sherlock takes on the case because the young man who comes to him for help talks about a "hound", a locution so unusual in 21st-century Britain that Sherlock is intrigued to investigate "the footprints of a gigantic hound".

Wikipedia's article indicates the links with other Conan Doyle stories, including the hallucinogenic gas, while playing on elements in the original story: the villain dies in "The Great Grimpen Minefield" rather than the GG Mire.

We see Sherlock break down in fear. Some admired Cumberbatch's performance. I was unconvinced, a failure of the writing rather than acting, since we have no indication that Holmes was so susceptible to fear.

Likewise the scene of the hound switching the lights on and off in the garden of the house, bringing the young man to breakdown, was also overdone, though based on an experience of the other writer (Paul Moffat) and his wife (Sue Vertue, one of the series producers).

Once again, homosexuality plays a prominent role in the humour, with the landlord of a tourist pub on Dartmoor and his chef forming an obvious gay couple for laughs.

The Falls of Reichenbach

Written by Steve Thompson, this is the most spectacular in setting of the series: the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison.

It also starts with Watson broken up by the death of Holmes (the Fall is Sherlock's, and Reichenbach a clever play on the original reference).

In the flashback, we learn of the spectacular series of capers launched by Moriarty, leading to his arrest, trial and acquittal, and the reason for his actions.

The histrionics of Moriarty resemble the antics of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight (2008), The Joker against Batman and Robin, the previous decade's Sherlock and Watson duo.

This sixth episode was also the cleverest in putting Sherlock under pressure, and ended with a challenge to the viewers to puzzle out how Sherlock escaped death when we saw him falling in close-up from the top of a building to the pavement.

A postmodern take on Sherlock

In keeping with the postmodern dictum that whatever is most insistently not talked about is the most important, I predict that Molly plays a key role in Sherlock's escape. He was unexpectedly nice to her, seeming almost to recognize she has a painful crush on him. He even told her she was very important to him. I'm not the only person who noticed it.

Without launching into a full-blown "popular culture trades on infantile regression" interpretation of what is at work in Sherlock, we can note how Holmes's social callousness is a constant of all recent versions, including Elementary, where the female Dr Watson (his "minder") fights back against his abuse.

The subject expected to abuse

It is hard to resist the suspicion that Sherlock is playing the Lacanian role of the "subject expected to" live out our unacknowledged desires.

The yoking of intelligence and cruelty in Holmes is mirrored in his evil twin Moriarty, who plays a much bigger role in Sherlock than in Conan Doyle's stories.

It suggests that these are in fact the determining values of modern existence. All the characters who present other virtues, such as Mrs Hudson and Dr Watson, lack something as people (intellect or awareness  – note Watson's Oedipal leg problem).

It is to this nexus that I would assimilate the gay-taunting preoccupation with "apparent" homosexuality throughout the series. Holmes is the father figure in this family and Watson the mother, as viewed by the invisible child (the viewer). Irene Adler is the temptation to adultery and escape from the Watson-Holmes marriage (in Sherlock she makes her living as a dominatrix).

In this configuration, Moriarty is Holmes unrestrained, i.e. without Watson. The Scotland Yard investigator Le Lestrade is Holmes weighed down with his fractious substitute family.

The "gayness" leitmotif points up these otherwise well-buried parallels with heterosexual life. The gay jokes reinforce our appreciation that this is a family, rather than a civil union.

At the same time this family is never acknowledged as such. Mrs Hudson points out that she is not the couple's housemaid, Its members therefore have a freedom to abuse the others they would never normally have (I first wrote "enjoy") inside a "real" fictional family.

Despite the intricate and clever refashioning of the original stories into the contemporary world, this aspect of the original stories is not confronted, laid bare or deconstructed: the gay jokes in the modern version are there to enable us to bury any suspicions about the Oedipal situation. Watson is not just the mother, he is also the son, or would be if Mrs Hudson had become the mother, or Irene Adler paired up with Holmes.

This is the most intriguing aspect of the Conan Doyle stories: how Watson avoids becoming the son (who must kill the father) in favor of remaining the mother.

Watson's only weapon against Holmes, in the updated Sherlock, is the blog that makes the unsociable detective famous. Watson is absolved from blame, of course, and so are we, by the psychotherapist who insists that publishing his thoughts are part of her treatment.

But you need only to read Stephen Grosz's Listening to Scrooge (2012) on sadistic gifts to discover what is really going on. Grosz writes about giving his sister a "perfect" expensive gift she did not thank him for: "The gift allowed me to feel better about myself — wasn't I thoughtful? — and then, when my sister didn't respond, to think less of her."

In Sherlock Watson, who is not married in contrast to Conan Doyle's version, is getting his own back on Holmes without seeming to. After all, Holmes dismisses the psychotherapist later as a bad doctor. Where does that leave Watson?

This may sound more like sibling rivalry than Oedipal revenge (one reason to refuse to embrace the Vienna school completely). The series certainly taps into such feelings to keep the audience engaged. It's certainly something Dr Who authors would be familiar with, writing for a largely teen audience. Holmes and Watson's dialogues are largely about settling and reminding each other who is the dominant figure.

But this is a kind of screen device, by which one set of screens out another and this other is what the relationship is really about. Holmes and Watson are a couple, with all the bickering, frustrations and exasperations of life as a couple, including recognition that the partner is not a very nice person in many respects. The wonder is they do not kill each other. But their continual Pinteresque banter is even more tragic: they are condemned to know the worst of each other.

Gotham on Thames

Not that Sherlock offers any more hopeful alternative image. This, after all, is what popular narrative does, trapping us into its narrow world of values for the sake of the thrills it offers.

What Sherlock conjures up, particularly with Moriarty as a variation on Batman's Joker, is London as Gotham City rather than Conan Doyle's fog-ridden capital of secrets and power.

In present-day London, as in Gotham (machine-ruled New York), personal links are tenuous and temporary, except for those of Holmes himself. Both Dr Watson and Mrs Hudson have no stable relations except with Holmes. The police investigative team is a hotbed of rivalry and intrigues. In a clever updating of Holmes's Baker Street Irregulars, we are encouraged to see the homeless as a network of spies on respectable society.

But these are not alternatives to the discovery that Hell is the same people again and again. Sherlock's insistence on boredom as the key motivation for any intelligent person (i.e. psychopath) is just part of the framing.

As evidence, I can cite the opening of The Sign of the Four, the chapter entitled "The Science of Detection", when Watson writes of Holmes injecting himself with cocaine:

Three times a day for many months I had witnessed this performance, but custom had not reconciled my mind to it. — On the contrary, from day to day I had become more irritable at the sight, and my conscience swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest. — Again and again I had registered a vow that I should deliver my soul upon the subject, but there was that in the cool, nonchalant air of my companion which made him the last man with whom one would care to take anything approaching to a liberty."

The more suspicious among us may underline "the last man" (rather than "the last person") as a Freudian phrase with rich implications. An indifferent, insensitive man is somehow noble. You also note the powerful placing of the word "liberty" and what it means in this context.

The Purloined Detective

Having explicated (I hope) the psychological fundamentals by which Sherlock tries to operate its magic, I'd like to go further in explaining its failures, before giving them a postmodern turn.

It is no accident, as the old Communists used to say in proving their argument by assertion, that Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida both wrote about Edgar Allan Poe's pioneering detective story, The Purloined Letter, perhaps the Poe story that most strongly seems to find its echo in Conan Doyle's Holmes stories (both detectives produce clouds of pipe smoke).

Not surprising, either, that the two darlings of postmodernism disagreed.

Fiction works not by offering a single solution to the problems it poses. Roland Barthes pointed out that we are willing to accept almost any ludicrous narrative answer to a puzzle in order to "achieve closure" and return to normality from our dallying with suspense.

Hence, all the incredible events and situations in Sherlock and Conan Doyle's original hardly matter, unless they block our phantasizing via the stories.

Posh critics, scarey revellers

Strangely, the complaints come most from the culturally literate critics, rather than reviewers and writers who take the stories as a commercial rather than "artistic" product: that is, not a problem for those to whom Benedict Cumberbatch's status in the actors' firmament and the story of his overcoat are worth as many lines as his undoubted abilities.

It's as if the posh critics complain when their privileged rights to fantasize are thwarted by transparent manipulation, while the lower orders do not expect their dreams to be "realistic" or to allow them to pretend that fiction is reality.

"We're harder to deceive but we demand that you successfully deceive us, and then we will honor you accordingly" seems to be their message to artists. Marcel Duchamp's "R.Mut" urinal has no place in their pantheon, though for some the surprise is a sufficient deception. You may ponder the fact that uneducated "art lovers" are usually the last to find anything of interest or worth prizing in a Duchamp piece.

Carnival culture

Through his notion of the carnivalesque – and you could easily argue that Duchamp's urinal is carnivalesque  – the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin argued that exaggerations which subvert "realism" and suspension of normal rules are guarantors of inclusiveness and acceptability for revellers who would not otherwise be allowed to break into respectable society

Today the marginal classes are better educated. They may not have much of a job but they've read their Conan Doyle, know about Batman and Wings of Desire, maybe even Caspar David Friedrich's works, particularly once someone points out the similarities between a shot of Sherlock against the London skyline and the painter's Wanderer above the sea of fog.

Fetishizing London

We're certainly not so crass as to ask: "What the hell did he do that for?" We know it was to knock us back with its beauty and reminds us how much London can look like a romantic painting, when it's not downright ugly. On the documentary issued with the first DVD, Mark Gatiss says the series makers wanted to "fetishize modern London in the way that the period version fetishised Victorian London".

There's more to be said here, along the lines of Pierre's Bourdieu's (over-prescriptive) ideas on cultural capital. It's the upscale Guardian rather than the tabloidy Daily Mail or The Sun that thinks its readers are interested in Friedrich or would appreciate a critic pointing out the homage with the message: see, primetime TV can be culture, or even, TV directors like to slip such status-enhancing things into their ratings-targeted products.

There was little of this in Sherlock, however. Even the Friedrich homage was not lingered on. The narrative drive determined the pace of cutting.

And recognizing the allusion does not deepen your understanding of Sherlock, any more than knowing that 221b Baker Street is set in today's North Gower Street, in contrast to, say, Joyce's Ulysses, whose equally spurious Homeric echoes do increase our sense of the author's irony.

London, Paris, Venice, New York

Instead, "Friedrich does London", as we can call the rooftop image, tells us how the writers want us to see the British capital. London has been a prime city for fetishization, going back at least to Wordsworth, continuing through Dickens and Thackeray, Whistler, Conan Doyle himself and several Hitchcock films.

Similar fetishization occurred for Paris and Venice, but not as exemplars of industrialization, and not for New York until O. Henry. The American writer also serves to point up the difference between Victorian depictions of London and the Sherlock series. What do all the people do? This is a city composed solely of service workers when we see them.

For a comprehensive picture of London as it appears to someone who lives there, rather than a visitor, you might turn better to Spooks (MI-5), where tatty, overcrowded and rundown London as well as its swankier sections featured in equal amounts.


The figure of the city is nevertheless a crucial part of the Holmes appeal. The New York-based version of the Holmes stories produced in 2012, Elementary utterly fails to be distinctive on this account, as distinct from, say, The Wire (Baltimore in the 1960s) or Treme (New Orleans post-Katrina, 2004).

As an aside, Elementary offers almost none of the teasing references to Conan Doyle's original work and stands on its own as a rather dull version of the police procedural genre. Not that the lack of active reference to the original in a remake is any gauge of quality: Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland requires no knowledge of the Lewis Carroll original to enjoy its surrealism.

The pleasure of puzzling things out

The association of avant-garde art with mystification and industrialized popular art with over-simplicity has a (hopefully) long-exposed and dubious pedigree. The pleasure of puzzling things out, rather than being swept away by the magnificence (which was a feature of shlock 1950s and 1960s films designed to compete with television), is a major modern source of enjoyment. Even in 1998 the media philosopher Noël Carroll found it worthwhile knocking down arguments from half a century before asserting that popular art presumes a passive audience (see Readings).

Sherlock is plainly designed to be mass entertainment, but for an educated audience that appreciates high-art puzzles. Like many mass art products these days it can be consumed twice to appreciate the mystification deployed at the first viewing, while many high-art products, inspired by Duchamp's attitude to the art market, revel in their simplicity and immediacy (Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst in the U.K. for example, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Mark Rothko in the U.S.).

In mass art, the puzzle is not what confronts the protagonist (Hamlet, for instance) but the audience as well (Hitchcock). Part of the shock of Marion Crane/Janet Leigh's disposal so early on in Psycho is that we lose the one person who could puzzle out the situation of Norman Bates/Anthony Perkins and his mother, while Norman sees no puzzle at all in his behaviour, once Marion has been killed.

The art of the remake

Clueless(1995) and Bridget Jones's Diary (2001) offer us the pleasure of recognizing Emma and Pride and Prejudice in a modern guise, but without the insistence that we pick up on the sources. If anything, a recognition forces an admission that, however witty the updating, the Jane Austen originals managed to be much more entertaining, suspenseful and emotionally moving. Her domestic situations are much more terrifying than modern commercial versions have allowed themselves to depict.

Sherlock, on the other hand, depends on recognizing the borrowings and updatings of the original stories for the fullest appreciation of its production. As such, on Carroll's analysis, it is high art, which he argues that film (and presumably television) cannot be:

In the best case, the play, its interpretation, and its performance are integrated, though we recognize that these are discriminable layers of artistry, even if one person writes the play, directs it, and acts in it as well. For there are many cases where a bad play finds a commendable interpretation, embodied in superb performances, while, at other times, a good play is poorly interpreted but performed well, and so on. That we make these distinctions so easily indicates that there are different ontological strata of artistry when it comes to the stage — strata of artistry that do not obtain in film in the same way.(214)

Despite this, Sherlock makes no claims other than to be mass art. I think Carroll's argument is therefore deficient. He also argues that a mass art production can appeal to only a small segment (science fiction or romantic comedy buffs) and still be demonstrably mass art in appealing to the largest audience with a product that is accessible on first viewing.

True enough, but a simplistic and reductionist interpretation of mass art, I think. Look at Fight Club or Magnolia. Puzzling out the relationship between Edward Norton and Brad Pitt is the core of Fight Club, but the explanation reveals a decidedly unpopular and minority view of society as an imprisoning and exploitative system. Hardly the message to send the audience home or to bed in a happy container of mind.

Magnolia, in turn, busts through many genre forms during the progress to its conclusion, even into musicals, in as unrealistic and genre-bending way as many Dickens novels, but it also plays on mass art forms without an attempt to ironize them.

Similarly, in Sherlock we can discuss the original story, its updating, the interpretations and the performances in exactly the way Carroll reserves for high art.

The aesthetic screenplay

Carroll also argues: "We do not evaluate shooting scripts independently of the film production, and we do not evaluate film-showings aesthetically at all" in contrast to plays (214).

He seems to be forgetting James Agee's or Dylan Thomas's film scripts, let along Ingmar Bergman's pre-treatments of his often much different films.

A number of critics and artists are also extremely concerned with the difference between watching a film in the cinema and on television. Producers and distributors, too, sometimes for commercial reasons, wanting to tempt audiences back into the cinema. At the turn of the 21st century, many blockbusters were designed to show their full power only in the theatre (see the career of James Cameron).

Sherlock is 21st-century television: high-def, knowing (in contrast to many blockbusters), with spectacular images (as distinct from whole scenes of spectacle), deliberately throw-away scenes, and a sense of drama that does not require your full attention to appreciate. Couch potatoes couldn't be better served.


For the authors' and actors' views on the versions of Holmes and Sherlock, see the BBC's 56-min. promotional retrospective, Unlocking Sherlock (2014).


For a review of psychoanalytic theories of consumers of mass art see Ed S. Tan. 1996. Emotion and the structure of narrative film: film as an emotion machine. Translated by Barbara Fasting. LEA'S communication series. Mahwah, N.J: Erlbaum. ISBN: 0805814094.

For a discussion of art theories of the passive specator, see Noël Carroll. 1998. A Philosophy of Mass Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 0198711298.

(updated on 8 January 2020)