BBC1’s Sherlock

This past week I had the opportunity to view the first season of BBC1’s new series “Sherlock”, which, in short, features everyone’s favorite consulting detective and his faithful sidekick in the 21st century. As a Victorianist, I was intrigued about how this would work, but on a completely non-academic note, delicious Britishness is always welcome to a starved American anglophile.

Having only watched each episode once (so far), my comments are pretty generalized, sprinkled with some rather interesting observations made during the shows with the friend who introduced me to the series. For me, at least, the plots of the cases, though certainly interesting, were secondary to the unfolding relationship between Sherlock and John; the writers make no secret of the fact that they’re teasing out an oft-overlooked romantic and/or homoerotic element of this friendship, and it is, I think, done tastefully (deliciously so). One can certainly ignore the hints, but they’re there if you choose to observe them (i.e. the suggestive addressing each other by their first names–something that never occurs in the original stories, primarily because Victorian gentlemen typically addressed one another by their surrnames).

I definitely want to watch each episode again before I can really draw my conclusions, but I felt the need to put my initial reaction in writing. Generally speaking, what intrigued me most was how the series calls into question the way that we categorise the relationship between John and Sherlock: are they lovers, or is it a “romantic friendship”? (Tangentially, it’s delicious that the series is addressing something so taboo for the Victorians). I think the initial response would be to read the homoerotic subtext, and while one could certainly do so, this would imply that there can’t be romance between two men, not to mention our difficulty in separating the dominant/submissive roles in a relationship from gender–the notion that dominance is characteristic of the male in a relationship, and submissiveness characteristic of the female. Sherlock is undoubtedly the dominant one in the relationship, and even I found myself slipping and referring to him as “masculine” and John as “feminine” because it’s just a knee-jerk reaction; without meaning to, I automatically tried to analyze their relationship and make sense of it within a heteronormative framework. In general, we can’t seem to wrap our minds around the possibility that dominant and submissive roles can exist independently of gender roles.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that the contemporary setting works quite well, mostly I think because there’s no time-travel involved; it’s as if the characters were created to exist in the 21st century, which still takes considerable imagination and creativity to pull off. Admittedly though, since I grew up on the original stories, there were several jarring moments: seeing the London streets full of cars, Sherlock comunicating via text rather than employing the irregulars–though he does use them in the third episode because, despite the advancements we’ve made in technology, the boys are still the most efficient and unobtrusive way to have ears and eyes all over the city.

In short, it’s an innovative way to make the stories accessible to a 21st century audiance, and it’s an interesting coincidence that Doyle’s Dr. Watson is a military man who’s served in, of all places, Afghanistan. Highlighting that element of the original character is something that would certainly resonate with the viewing audience.

I’m certainly going to need to watch each of the three episodes again before writing up a more detailed reaction, but my appetite has certainly been whet, and I’ll be curious to see how the American audience will respond when it airs here in October.

Writer and Teacher

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