There are a number of criticisms that have been levelled against the TV series Sherlock, whose thrilling pace and theatrical poetry earned it commercial and critical acclaim any other show would envy. Indeed, I wonder if this is one reason for the criticisms — the green-eyed monster; what David Hume termed ‘jealousy of trade’. How could a TV show be good and successful? Something must be off. And yet, here it is. A good show, that is also commercially successful, to the chagrin of the left.
But then, chagrin was never a good reason for anything. To be commercially successful, you often have to go with the trend. But to be really successful, you have to set trends. You have to do something new. It’s the copy-cats that aren’t so good.
Sherlock reinvents its timeless subject matter in a modern context, akin to the reinvention of Hamlet by the BBC in 2009, with David Tenant at the helm. Steven Moffat’s accession to showrunner of Doctor Who after Tenant’s exit and Matt Smith’s entry into the leading role went hand-in-hand with his reinvention of Sherlock Holmes with Mark Gatiss as cowriter and the comedic duo Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock and Watson. Since then, Cumberbatch and Freeman have done some less well-advised, but very lucrative, roles. Sherlock was the beginning of their current dominance of blockbusters. And Sherlock was a TV series.
But to cut to the chase, why is Sherlock so good? If it weren’t so successful, what value would the TV series have? I think the answer is, in part, same as why it is so successful: the show is spectacularly, incomparably new.
Sherlock reinvents itself with almost every movie-length episode. It is, in a sense, a series of movies dressed up as a TV series, considering the 90-minute length of each episode. The pace is arresting, the acting is gripping, the direction is sleek and smooth, and the writing is nothing less than ingenious.
Criticisms of the show rest on taking any one of its signal achievements and diminishing them by poking holes in them. But the meticulousness of these criticisms reflects the meticulousness of the subject matter, and thereby confirms rather than denies Sherlock’s brilliance.
What underpins this brilliant novelty? At the heart of the intricate plot-lines, horrifying crimes, and spellbinding themes of the show — from the politics of friendship to the vices of hubris, pride, and ignorance (sins which don’t always go together) — is, well, a beating heart.
And this is a theme common to all of Steven Moffat’s writing. Intricate ideas overlay a fundamentally human impression of compassion, unconditional and deeply interpersonal. Moffat’s characters — from the BBC’s Jekyll to the better-known Doctor Who, Sherlock, and, more recently, Dracula — are entrapped in webs of self-deception. After the webs are untangled, all there is is love. The pursuit of power thereby masks the reality of love. We run after what we already have. How’s that for a good show?