January 19, 2014

BROMER| Why Are We Obsessed With Sherlock Holmes?

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Yesterday, the BBC’s Sherlock returned for its third season. Or, it returned for its third season on this side of the pond. The Brits, apparently unaware that their stranglehold on international geopolitics slipped some 70 years ago, have held out from broadcasting the show abroad in an apparent attempt to assert their cultural superiority. The show’s triumphant comeback raises a question: Why are we so obsessed with Sherlock Holmes?

The answer, my dear reader, is not elementary (ugh … I’m so, so sorry). To some, Sherlock is a victim of a larger trend in entertainment that favors appropriation of widely known characters and stories over the creation of wholly original works. From Baz Luhrmann’s sparkly, empty Gatsby, to J.J. Abrams’ series of Star Trek films, to all of those Romeo & Juliet adaptations at your local playhouse, old franchises and old ideas are being dredged up left and right, pulling in big sales but sacrificing originality in the process.

As James Parker addresses in The New York Times, there is a commercial factor to the culture industry’s “built-in timidity”: globally-recognized brands that draw viewers are simply more lucrative than those that don’t. Parker also notes that alongside this commercial reality exists a thoroughly modern conundrum — the more art we make, the further we stray into the derivative. Parker’s arguments, though valid, don’t fully explain Sherlock’s popularity. If we are in a so-called “golden age of television” — a sentiment that is deeply flawed but rightly appreciative of the quality of original content — is the resurgence of classic characters only motivated by commercial incentive and creative desperation?

If greed, a lack of creativity or Benedict Cumberbatch’s good looks don’t hold the key to Sherlock’s continuing popularity, what does?

On the one hand, Sherlock is completely unrelatable to the modern viewer. Cold, acerbic and disdainful, he seems, more so than most clichéd antiheroes, to betray further inspection. He is an uncrackable case.

Though we cannot pretend to really know Sherlock the man, one can relate to his principles. Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in an era that proclaimed the triumph of the rational over the absurd or illogical, Holmes continues to gain our admiration as an embodiment of that pursuit. Hyper-perceptive, highly judicious and always two steps ahead, he is almost superhuman. He is the endpoint of our intellectual endeavors but shuns most intellectual pursuits, believing them to be little more than a distraction. Both in his abilities and his single-minded approach, then, he represents a rational ideal that is beyond our reach, but to which we nevertheless strive.

Fundamental ambiguity stands forcefully over much of our waking lives. Our fear of the unknown — or worse, the mundane — seems to drive us toward Sherlock as a character, and Sherlock as a BBC television series.

Not all adaptations satisfy this longing equally. In recent times, Guy Ritchie’s heavy-handed approach has missed the mark entirely, while Elementary dumbs down the character and condescends to the audience, betraying the basic premise of Doyle’s stories in the process. Here is where Moffatt’s Sherlock succeeds: Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is unreachable, but he is admirable and, at his best, intensely likeable. We want him to succeed, even if we don’t understand what success really means to him. In short, Cumberbatch as Sherlock works because he is a tribute to the rational, unclouded by clichés or cheap callbacks to the source work.

Adaptations are not created equal. While some may be the result of a lack of creative integrity or commercial considerations, others are genuine in their treatment of characters which, despite their widespread adoption, deserve further exploration. It is rare for a character to be as relevant and universally adored as Sherlock, and even more rare for said character to be so enigmatic. Let’s just hope Sherlock continues to charm, to inspire and to confound.