‘Sherlock’ jumped the shark some time back


The series started out promisingly enough.

In the first season, I found “Sherlock” fun, clever and refreshing.

Normally, I look askance at efforts to “update” perfectly good stories, unless they are exceedingly well done. For instance, give me Franco Zeffirelli’s temporally faithful 1968 version of “Romeo and Juliet” with the perfect casting of Olivia Hussey as Juliet (a girl actually almost young enough for the part — and what young Romeo would not have fallen for her?), not the execrable (right down to the title) “Romeo + Juliet” of 1996.

On the other hand, give me Ethan Hawke’s brooding young updated “Hamlet,” with his usurping uncle being the head of “Denmark Corporation,” over the versions with the absurdly ancient Kenneth Branagh (36) or Mel Gibson (34) in the title role. OK, Hawke was 30, but didn’t look it. And his characters’ obsession with shooting avant-garde video of himself and the other characters worked perfectly with Hamlet’s introspection.

Despite what I say about Branagh and Gibson, I can even overlook demographically creative casting, such as the Nigerian-Jewish Sophie Okonedo in the recent “The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses”… when they pull it off. I thought she was scary good as Margaret of Anjou.

But enough Shakespeare; back to my topic… At the outset, I thought the “Sherlock” update worked. The folks who made it did fun things with Sherlock’s use of his smartphone and Watson’s blog, and the Guy-Ritchie-style cinematographic gimmicks were more fun than distracting.

The early episodes, from “A Study in Pink” through “A Scandal in Belgravia,” are true to the essence of the Holmes canon (and sometimes even to the letter — I was startled, when I went back and read “A Study in Scarlet,” that the original Watson actually was an Army doctor trying to get over his experiences in Afghanistan), while introducing 21st-century elements that work, and freshen up the formula. And as the story wore on, I was delighted with the wonderfully idiosyncratic Moriarty created by Andrew Scott.

But then… the writers of the show started running out of legitimate ideas. This was fully evident in the first episode of the third season, with the explanation of how Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock wasn’t really dead. Something was just… off about it.

This offness really went over the Reichenbach Falls when we learned Mary Morstan’s big secret. That, as much as anything, was the moment when the shark looked up and saw the Fonz’s motorcycle flying over the tank.

This was insulting to the plot, to the characters and to viewers’ intelligence for a number of reasons, such as:

  • The basis of Watson’s relationship with her — and therefore the explanation of her role in the protagonists’ lives — was that he had fallen for the person she had seemed to be. And now she was an entirely other person — an unrealistically sinister person. And yet the relationships continue on their merry way.
  • This was a fantasy character, and not in the Sherlock Holmes mode of fantasy (a cerebral sort of fantasy, in which we pretend we believe that an eccentric genius actually could deduce those facts from such thin, subtle clues without erring), a sort of fantasy that works in a Victorian/Edwardian drawing room. This character sought to out-Bond James Bond, and folks, there is no such person out there as James Bond to begin with — or Jason Bourne, either. What real spies do is George Smiley boring. (At least, boring to adolescents. I find Smiley fascinating.)
  • She’s not some super-athlete, but a middle-aged woman, who is just barely young enough to have a baby. Nothing about the actress or the character speaks to “superhero.”

Yeah, I realize I’m running up against the feminist imperative here. The original Mary Morstan, in the Arthur Conan Doyle stories, was a realistic young woman of her era, a former governess, a damsel in distress very much in need of our heroes’ aid. And feminists hate that kind of character, which means the entertainment industry hates that kind of character. So she becomes a superwoman. And ta-da!, the men are no longer driving the action.

Fine. But make it semi-believable. Make the next Luke Skywalker a girl rather than a boy, but make it work (all things are possible with the Force). Sell it to me. I fully believed in the deadliness of the original “La Femme Nikita.” That worked. But stop and think a bit before you do it. I wouldn’t believe Watson as some sort of super double-naught spy/assassin. So why do you think it works with his wife?

But this wildly unbelievable Mary Morstan isn’t the problem — she’s just a dramatic illustration of the problem.

The problem is perfectly seen in the moment, in the new episode aired Sunday after months of hype, when a group of super-assassins dressed like ninjas (one of them being Mary, by the way, although that’s not important to my point), come rappelling down from the rafters into a hostage situation, spraying automatic-rifle fire in all directions.

Yes, there was violence in the original Holmes stories. This sort of violence: As they hastily left the flat on Baker Street in response to the game being afoot, Holmes would suggest Watson slip his ancient revolver into the pocket of his mac, just in case — a revolver Watson would produce and train on the villain in the denouement, causing the baddie to become completely passive while Holmes explains how he figured it all out.

The “action” was civilized and human-scale. It was about what went on in Holmes’ head, not “Fast and Furious”-style whizbang.

In other words, more Smiley than Bond.

The makers of “Sherlock” seemed to understand that at first. Then they lost their way…

Please, Sherlock -- lose the ninjas.

Please, Sherlock — lose the ninjas.

17 thoughts on “‘Sherlock’ jumped the shark some time back

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Only after I wrote this post and started Googling for pictures to illustrate it did I see that others were saying the exact same thing. For instance, The Guardian says “Sherlock is slowly and perversely morphing into Bond. This cannot stand.

    Amen to that.

    As the piece continues, “With its abseiling assassins, bloody shootouts and underwater fisticuffs, Sherlock has ceased to be the brainy, vital show that became a phenomenon. What happened to the violin and pipe?”

    Exactly what I’m on about!

    I just want to assert for the record that I came up with the same points entirely on my own. Just ask my wife; she had to listen to me ranting about these things while we were watching it…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      And it turns out they agree with me as to the precise moment when the show jumped the shark:

      The problems with the show, once so surprising and so vital, began in series three, when it had become a phenomenon. A single decision shoulders much of the blame. When Moffat, Gatiss or both decided that Mary Watson just had to be a ninja assassin with a murky past, they took ill-advised liberties with Conan Doyle’s stories in what one can only assume was an attempt to make the programme even sexier. It failed. None of the scenes involving Mary ring true. How can the viewer be expected to believe that both John Watson’s best friend and his wife could be waist-deep in such extraordinarily cool activities? The show began to feel implausible, a fate from which it has never recovered….


  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Come on, now — two posts in a row that draw no comments?

    Oh, well; I’ll converse with myself..

    Just realized that I conflated two things above — the scene when Fonzie jumped the shark on waterskis, and the time he jumped something else on his motorcycle.

    But I think it works, so I’m going to leave it…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          What strikes me from that link is this line from the RHH:

          “Obama, more than any other candidate in either party, has based his campaign on the promise of positive change in Washington and an effort to heal the caustic partisan rift that divides not only the nation’s capital but also much of the nation.”

          That quote is eight years old, but it seems like a lifetime ago, doesn’t it?

          1. Brad Warthe

            But it was true. Obama offered the possibility of moving beyond the nonsense, as did McCain in a different way from his end of the spectrum.

            Problem is, the nonsense is extremely resistant to change.

            And now, we have all this brand-new BS that makes the old partisan garbage look good by comparison. Almost…

  3. Brad Warthen Post author

    Did any of y’all click on the link to the Olivia Hussey gif? That moving (in more than one sense) image beggars Shakespeare’s description:

    It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
    Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
    Who is already sick and pale with grief,
    That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
    Be not her maid, since she is envious;
    Her vestal livery is but sick and green
    And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.
    It is my lady, O, it is my love!
    O, that she knew she were!
    She speaks yet she says nothing: what of that?
    Her eye discourses; I will answer it.
    I am too bold, ’tis not to me she speaks:
    Two of the fairest stars in all the heaven,
    Having some business, do entreat her eyes
    To twinkle in their spheres till they return.
    What if her eyes were there, they in her head?
    The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
    As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
    Would through the airy region stream so bright
    That birds would sing and think it were not night.
    See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand!
    O, that I were a glove upon that hand,
    That I might touch that cheek!

    What astounding magic in a young girl’s expressions!

    Oh, and before you call me a dirty old man, I’m two years younger than Olivia Hussey and therefore the appropriate age to have fallen in love with her in 1968 — long before meeting my wife, may I add. And when I see that image, I’m that boy again…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      It is?

      Hey, I try to keep up with things.

      For instance, although I don’t watch cable TV news, I was interested to see in the news (real news — print news) a picture of Megyn Kelly, who is moving to NBC, and I finally realized who she was…

      She played Drago’s wife in “Rocky IV,” right?


  4. Bart

    As a big fan of the new Sherlock, in some ways I liked the Mary character but it did go a little too far on this episode. The question now is how will the writers handle the relationship between Sherlock and Watson after she took a bullet for Sherlock? According to a write-up, the remaining two episodes will become very dark and there is no guarantee more episodes will be produced after these three.

    Like any other series on the “telly”, the writers took some aspects too far and may have ruined a very good series.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author


      Oh, and another thing: Did you notice that she made her move to intercept the bullet AFTER it had been fired? Sheesh.

      She needn’t have bothered. The writers would have just come up with some outlandish explanation for Sherlock coming back to life — again.

      As I fully expect Moriarty to do at some point…

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        And will the writers do that for HER? I doubt it. Especially after she and Martin Freeman split up…

        And what was her thought process in making that leap? “Sherlock must live, while I’m just a mother with a newborn baby completely dependent on me?” Seriously? By what logic was his life more valuable?

        1. Bart

          According to the article, she and Martin did talk about the scene and ending their marriage while filming it.

  5. JesseS

    Most of the Mary’s craziness was all Mark Gatiss, an aging English boy who likes aging English boys. It’s trite, but girls ain’t in his wheelhouse. When Gatiss has women in script, it’s because he has a set of jokes and plot twists he has been waiting to use, not because it really makes sense.

    Not that Moffat doesn’t have similar problems. He made Irene Adler a dominatrix because of the setups and sex, then made her a lesbian to feel OK about it, and then she falls in love with a man? Ok?

    Normally I bristle when it comes to “Not enough ______s in the writing room”, but with Moffat/Gatiss it has always felt that the problem was kind of obvious.

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