This is predictable, but I really like the BBC series Sherlock, which just finished its second season over there. As Michael Dirda explains in the New York Review of Books, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories have always had their devotees, but the past decade has brought a lot of adaptations, explorations, and expansions. (I would add to his list House, Michael Chabon's novella The Final Solution, and Julian Barnes's Arthur and George as works in the shadows of Sherlock.) Some of these aren't very inspired. The recent movie version (with Robert Downey Jr.) was pretty tedious.

The BBC series, however, is really fun. Benedict Cumberbatch is great in the title role; he brings a bit of boyishness that we don't usually get from Holmes. character. Martin Freeman is very good as Watson. Once I finish the dowager countess master class in bitchface, I'm going to practice this characteristic I'm-exasperated-at-circumstances-and-myself-as-much-as-you expression. The series is also really beautiful--not a Benedict Cumberbatch joke--which is an underrated quality in a detective series. I was watching an Inspector Morse the other night and the greatest mystery was what could possibly be happening on screen. This series has rich color and texture, and a good eye for design; 221B is my favorite bachelor flat on film since Count Almásy's.
As a fan of the stories, although not a very diligent one, it's interesting to contemplate how the series departs from them. Conan Doyle, as I recall, shows Holmes to be a lot more affable than this series does. In the stories, Holmes is aware that his mind outpaces those of the people around him, but his attitude is relatively tolerant. "You see I have a lot of special knowledge which I apply to the problem, and which facilitates matters wonderfully," he explains to Watson soon after they meet. "Those rules of deduction laid down in that article which aroused your scorn are invaluable to me in practical work. Observation with me is second nature." And Holmes is comparatively solicitous of other people--a bit wry about their problems, but not particularly vicious. The overall impression is eccentric but not offensive.

The TV Sherlock, by contrast, makes a point of offending. He thinks poorly of most people, and often volunteers that to them. Even when he's dealing with someone who's clearly in distress, he scolds them for boring him. It's suggested that he doesn't understand other people's emotional reactions; most of his interactions with the shy mortician played by Louise Brealey end with her on the verge of tears, even though Sherlock theoretically has no problem with her. At one point, when Watson scolds him about it--Sherlock having just harshed her by explaining that a new boyfriend is a confirmed bachelor--Sherlock protests that he was trying to be kind. On other occasions, though, he's clearly able to anticipate people's feelings; he manages this whenever he wants someone to tell him or give him something. On the evidence, he's less a psychopath than just kind of a dick. There are, however, some indications in the second series that his attitude is thawing.

Despite this, the character is clearly Sherlock Holmes. This suggests that the core of the character has little to do with his disposition. The essential Sherlock Holmes quality, across the successful iterations, is his empirical stance. His devotion is to science, reason, data, logic, deduction, induction. From that it follows that he'll have little use for institutions, with all their pathologies; little facility with convention; and little insight into human foibles like love.

Whether that yields an avuncular Sherlock or an aggressive one may be a function of the era. Interestingly, Hugh Laurie's House character (inspired by Holmes) is also unpleasant. It might be all these months I've spent writing about the Republican primary, but I wonder if we can infer that this is because people don't like overtly clever people these days. In Conan Doyle's day, people either admire Holmes or they dismiss him as a harmless oddball. Today, we have a handful of people who admire Sherlock, another group who apparently respect him but seem to dislike him personally, and a third group who are openly hostile. They may, of course, be hostile because he's a dick. But there's probably also a bit of a negative feedback loop at work. In Victorian England, science could still be seen as a harmless pastime. Norms were established by the church, by tradition, by convention, or even by philosophy. All of those are to some extent based on things unseen, and over the intervening century their authority has been eroded. Scientists, empiricists, technocrats, and super-logical types have become more powerful, and their epistemological stance sometimes makes people uneasy. Their rules imply that conclusions that aren't falsifiable equally can't be accepted as true. A modern Sherlock Holmes would surely be controversial, even if his manners were better.
 



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