Sunday night, as my wife and I watched the last episode of the long-awaited third season of Sherlock, I couldn’t help but think back to the start of it all. Two years ago, spurred on by the enthusiastic recommendation from a friend whose opinion I trust, I defied my best judgment and watched the first episode of the series. I was extremely skeptical for many reasons, but one reason in particular towered above the rest. My heart belonged to another.
I am a fanatical fan of the Granada Television series in which Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes. Although many have tried to capture the enigmatic hero, Brett owned the role giving everything he had to it. Some even argue that it killed him, as the actor’s health deteriorated toward the end of the series. Given my strong preference, I feared I would never be able to stomach the inferior strokes of another actor swimming in the same pond. Further, I worried that in a series, in which an individual episode clocks in just shy of ninety minutes, the creators might suffer delusions of grandeur—it has become a cliché that nothing yields worse television than overreaching. However, another platitude—anticipation exceeds realization—ultimately forced me to set my apprehension aside, cozy up to Netflix, and push play.
The first scene of the inaugural episode, entitled “A Study in Pink,” contains no dialogue, yet it is pure exposition. Brilliant cinematography tells the story and introduces us to John Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ soon-to-be confidant and co-conspirator. With quick cuts, lense flare, out-of-focus camera work, and dramatic tonal contrast, we meet the man and gain a depth of understanding that the script alone could not have convey. Almost immediately it is made clear that the star of Sherlock is its visual storytelling. Having barely scratched the surface, I nonetheless sat smiling with my fears all but allayed.
Following this first scene, we learn that John Watson, a former military doctor, suffers with the melancholy of having returned from the front. Conversing with a therapist eager to mediate his transition to civilian life, he confides that “nothing happens to me.” Cue the dramatic title sequence scored with a haunting theme that heralds change to come (imagine a photo negative of “Something’s Coming” from West Side Story). The frenetic visuals bolster the score, insisting that something will soon upend Watson’s malaise. We know that something to be Sherlock. When the eponymous hero, lovingly portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, finally appears on screen, eager anticipation reaches realization. Less than ten minutes in, I was hooked.
The BBC’s Sherlock presents Watson as a stand in for the viewer. Watson has known profound and shattering experiences, but the series finds him desperate for the next high. His new acquaintance Sherlock Holmes (appropriately enough an occasional drug addict) provides that needed fix. The show asks us to toss aside any skepticism and accept the unfathomable depths of Holmes’ intellect. It dazzles us with manifold examples of Holmes’ cleverness, but relies on the practice of telling, rather than showing, to evince the detective’s genius. Like Holmes, the show itself is clever and addictive. It offers ecstatic thrills, and rarely overreaches to stir up deeper meaning. Looking back from the end of the third season over more than thirteen hours of television, I enthusiastically recommend that you suspend your disbelief, and trust in Sherlock. I, like Watson, found it well worth the ride.
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