Secret Agent, Detective, Genius, Jerk: Modernizing Sherlock Holmes

holmes cover 1A man with dark wavy hair wakes up in an iron-framed bed in the middle of a windowless room. He leaps out from under the white sheets and stares intently at a corner of the white ceiling. Suddenly, gracefully, he spins to defeat an invisible opponent in four swift motions, finally falling to his knees in front of an empty chair, hands outstretched.

There’s something about the way Benedict Cumberbatch plays the lead role in the BBC series Sherlock that seems like it could be Holmes’ fantasy version of how a brilliant  detective behaves. In the episodes I’ve seen he’s twitchy and neurotic, but also cool and proficient with a performative quality that left me thinking the series could turn out to be a dream sequence where the last episode ends with young Holmes waking up in his bedroom, or an older version playing it all out in a psychiatric ward. Or for another twist on that cliche, the audience is seeing the whole series of events through Holmes’ own distorted self-image, a sort of Jekyll and Hyde split where Watson is his alter-ego, penning his own narrative.

holmes runningThe central tweak in Sherlock is that it’s set in contemporary London, transposing Holmes scientifically-minded rationality into the language of computers and modern technology. Watson is a veteran of the more recent Afghan war, who serves as a narrator of sorts, writing blog posts about the mysteries they solve. The series is clever and well-constructed, and does a good job of portraying them as a duo, each bringing what the other lacks and enabling them to do together what neither could manage alone. In many ways it’s a very faithful and successful adaptation of Conan Doyle’s books, and it has certainly gained a lot of critical acclaim, but somehow it just doesn’t capture my imagination.

In modernizing Holmes, and presumably also cashing in on the popularity of the recent movies, Sherlock adopts some of the devices of Guy Ritchie’s adaptations – for instance a labelled diagram sequence that maps an opponent’s anatomy before Holmes knocks him unconscious  – but without the accompanying post-modern wink to the audience. They’re quite different projects in that one is transposed into modern times but remains quite true to the original dramatic narrative, and the other is set in the historical period but has a comedic modern aesthetic. Sherlock is funny at times, and it’s self-reflexive in a way that is akin to Doyle’s narrative structure, but for better or worse it doesn’t seem inclined to poke fun at itself in the entertaining albeit somewhat anachronistic way Ritchie’s does.

downey holmesI enjoyed Robert Downey Jr’s slightly over the top Holmes because he approaches it with tongue firmly in cheek. He has the cool fighting ability, spy-quality stunts, disguises, and genius-level reasoning skills down, but his social aptitude is about what you’d expect from an egocentric, alcoholic misanthrope who calculates all trajectories theoretically. He’s socially dysfunctional in the off-kilter way that often afflicts the hyper-intelligent, and he gets his way mostly by behaving like an emotionally clueless, unruly child, which counterbalances the super-detective coolness.

Cumberbatch’s Holmes is also socially deficient, but what he seems to lack is empathy, which I find…well… harder to empathize with. Of course the function of Watson’s character in the narrative is to bridge that gap, both for the other characters and for the audience, but the Holmes of Sherlock describes himself as a sociopath and I never perceived the character that way. Intentionally emotionally controlled to the point of being self-absorbed and insensitive, yes, but not actually lacking in empathy. He can understand how other people feel – if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to maintain the relationships he relies on or navigate intricacies of human behavior to solve mysteries – but he values setting emotions aside in the belief that they cloud reason. In fact, Holmes would be the last person to describe himself as a sociopath unless he literally was one, because that would be scientifically inaccurate. Not to mention that if he was a sociopath, by definition he wouldn’t be aware of it.

Really I’m picking some nits here, because Sherlock is a very well done show. I’m just trying to work out what it is that doesn’t sit right with me about it, and I keep circling back to Holmes’ character. Somehow it reads like a performance to me, and that kicks me out of the story. I expect him to be an oddball, and he is, but in a world and genre that admires traditionally ‘masculine’ traits such as cold rationality and equates empathy and instinct with weakness, his robotic emotional detachment still reads more like a fantasy than a failing.

chuckRather unexpectedly, what Sherlock‘s Holmes makes me think of is the NBC action/comedy spy series Chuck. (I admit that might be in part because Benedict Cumberbatch and Zachary Levi look like they might be from the same section of the catalogue, but I swear it’s not just superficial!)  Chuck is a computer nerd with a dead-end job at the local Buy More electronics chain store who gets a top-secret CIA/NSA database subliminally embedded in his brain and ends up being recruited as a secret agent. He’s inept at it, of course, but whenever he tries to act like a spy or imagines himself doing spy things, he’s all James Bond.

chuck spyChuck’s image of himself as a secret agent reminds me a bit of Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Holmes as a brilliant detective. Chuck really wants to be a cool, competent spy – mostly to impress CIA Agent Sarah Walker, who is assigned to protect him under the cover of being his girlfriend – but it takes him most of the series to let go of the Hollywood version of what that looks like and integrate reality and his humanity into it. I think I’m still waiting for Holmes to develop somehow.

Of course, it’s also partly in the filming. If Sherlock spent a little less time on close-ups of Cumberbatch staring intensely I’d probably find it less at odds with Holmes’ total disregard for appearances and the character might strike a different chord.



alex MacFadyen wishes his social affect was offset by a Secret Agent Detective alter-ego.

5 replies »

  1. Great article. I enjoy Sherlock, but I watch it under pretty casual circumstances, so I’ve dwelt on it particularly. However, there are a whole host of other shows that I think do to me exactly what Sherlock does to you. Ripper Street and The Americans — I like both these shows, possibly a lot, but there is something that keeps them from clicking completely with me. I think it’s the lack of empathy, or if not that exactly, then a certain remoteness I feel in them that keeps me from connecting with any of the characters in a way that finally push me into loving the shows.

    I don’t know where Elementary fits in to the picture. I enjoy it well enough also, and Johnny Miller’s Sherlock, while still being abrasive and neurotic, seems substantially more human, thought the show itself is not quite as sharp as its British counterpart. At least the US one has a lot fewer “we’re not boyfriends” jokes.

    And I love the movies. Downey and Ritchie seem to have admitted that they can’t make a proper Holmes film with modern cinematic language and audience tastes, so they might as well go on a lark.


  2. Interesting view. I read the books back in the dark ages somewhere (mumble mumble 70s mumble), loved the Downey/Law films (and some of the older versions as well) but am completely Sherlocked with the BBC version. I have no idea if being female has anything to do with this, I am not a 20-something fangirl. I actually find both actors (Freeman and Cumberbatch) brilliant and subtle, with great chemistry, and the characters perfect foils for each other. I find elements in each character that I identify with (I so want to shout “shut up! you lower the IQ of the entire street!” at random moments, and opening my friends fridge might actually reveal a deceased and frozen bit of roadkill). It may be a matter of taste (Atonement, with all its oscars just made me want to throw the TV out the window)or what clicks with a particular person (hated Oz, loved the Croods).


  3. The Guy Ritchie movies made something click for me that never had before: the real and enduring friendship of Holmes and Watson. As played by Law, Watson was both competant and tough. Intelligent too, even if not as gifted as Holmes– and he had an emotional grounding Holmes lacked.

    The Moffat/Gatiss BBC series cemented that relationship, and then some. I think Freeman and Cumberbatch play off one another beautifully, and each gives the other nuance that wouldn’t be visible otherwise. Liked the movies a lot; LOVED the BBC series.


  4. I remain quite fond of Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes, and enjoyed the relationship of that Holmes to his Watson. But I might be a little Holmes’ed out lately. I couldn’t really get into Sherlock. I appreciate how well-made it is and that it is interesting to offer a contemporary Holmes, but, like alex, there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right with me, beyond my preferences around particular iterations of Holmes/Watson.

    (Which include The Great Gonzo and Fozzie Bear, btw:


  5. That Cumberbatch plays Holmes as a total jerk is one of the things I like most about the show. RDJ’s version is definitely stunted, but also wounded. Or maybe that’s just his eyes?

    I was never a fan of Doyle’s text, largely because Holmes was such an insufferable bastard. So BC’s version rings very true for me.

    And that voice… Yeah, that’s good.


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