The Hobgoblin of Little Minds: Why I Still Believe in Sherlock
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.
-Ralph Waldo Emerson (x)
I think The Great Game, directed by Paul McGuigan and written by Mark Gatiss, is the consummate Sherlock. It’s the first episode they filmed and I don’t think they’ve equalled it. I don’t think they ever will. It’s everything, to my mind and heart, that the show should be: complex, funny, poignant, beautiful, exhilarating, just dark enough in every respect. I love the portrayal of Sherlock’s and John’s relationship, Sherlock’s petulance and longing. John’s rage, his inability to connect with Sarah or with Sherlock. Mrs. Hudson comically avoids cerise. Lestrade listens to her intently and that’s all we ever need to know about the DI to understand his moral character. Mycroft is pitch perfect. And Moriarty! Andrew Scott, too, is perfection. I didn’t care for Molly’s meekness but, overall, I think they got it right the first time.
I believe in Sherlock precisely because it will never, ever, for me, be that good again. Counterintuitive, no? No. I view each and every episode as a stand alone. As its own movie, yes, but more than that I see each episode as an opportunity for the three writers, Gatiss, Steven Moffat, and Steve Thompson, to come at the world of Sherlock Holmes anew. Let’s be honest with ourselves. There is very little consistency between the episodes. While consistency may comfort the viewer who revels in repetition, in the case of Sherlock it would be small minded of the show runners to strive for it.
I believe in Sherlock because it’s never executed exactly the way I would have done it. And, true, that can be disappointing and frustrating initially, but more often than not, it’s interesting in the long run. TGG was magical. What else can Mofftiss do with ACD? It doesn’t matter just try something new. Make Sherlock Holmes new. Risk thrilling me with your “failures.”
There have never been guarantees with this show. It’s a nightmare to produce. Gatiss and Moffat are right to write it as if each episode is their last, to ask themselves how they would, given one opportunity and one opportunity only, approach, as in Gatiss’s case, The Bruce-Partington Plans, or The Hound of the Baskervilles, or write the script for a case ACD mentions but never writes such as The Giant Rat of Sumatra. I adore Gatiss’ scripts because they’re plot-driven and erotic, camp in Isherwood’s sense. With The Empty Hearse Gatiss even granted us a lovingly spoofed, post-modern Sherlock. I absolutely adored it and I’ll bet hard cash that we won’t see its precise like again.
While Gatiss approaches his opportunities to update his beloved ACD primarily through plot, Moffat is a romantic at heart. He’s all about who Sherlock Holmes is as a character. How he must feel about The Woman, what kind of best man he’d be, why, in canon, he might admire Watson’s wife. Moffat is a writer of the “what if”… Let’s drop Sherlock into scenarios and watch him dance.
I believe in Sherlock because I read it from a writerly point of view. I spend endless hours putting myself in the place of the people who make the show, wondering what they’re thinking, what their hopes are, their squee, how they solve problems, the risks they take and the chances they let escape. Each episode is, for me, the result of (as Michael Price puts it) 100,000 micro decisions made daily by scores of people. They’re delightful to dissect. The bliss is imagining yourself in their enviable position. How would you have done it differently? Nearly each of us has a a lengthy, impassioned response to that question if only the makers would pose it to us. Thankfully that’s not their job.
I had dinner with a respected mystery novelist last night. She’s spent 50 years married to a prominent theater scholar. I asked her what, to her mind, makes an excellent theatrical production or an excellent mystery. She said, “Think of it! Think of allll that has to go right in order to make something perfectly average. Excellence is a marvel. It seems like magic.” In terms of a fine mystery plot she said there must be a twist that you didn’t see coming but, in retrospect, was there undetected all along.
I believe in Sherlock because it is not a detective show and never will be. It is a show about detectives. You’re free to treat it like a fine mystery, seek what you hope are intentionally planted clues, but that isn’t how ACD constructed his Holmes stories and it’s not what Mofftisson are interested in. (Think of how Moffat retcons Who. He does it because constancy is a hobgoblin. Plot, schmott, Give me the glory that is River Song. The specifics of her timeline are beside the point, Sweetie.) Sherlock is not an exquisitely hyper-intentionally plotted Thomas Harris thriller-mystery. Everything, everything in The Silence of the Lambs is a clue. Sherlock is not that. You can pretend it is. By all means seek uncanny consistency. You will not find it in the first three seasons unless it’s of your own manufacture.
Mofftiss have plotted an arc for seasons four and five, they say. I believe them. Until now it’s been a mad rush to do the big stories while they could. And it’s worked for me. There’s been an urgency, an anxiety about doing everything they possibly can with their adaptations of ACD while they have the fleeting chance. It’s an aesthetic shared with ACD of the episodic. (It’s how I feel about my Sherlock maker interviews— what do I ask when I’ve got one shot at it. If I had the luxury of, say, five shots at getting it right, you’d see a very, very different result.) This is the first time Mofftiss have had enough insurance that future productions will, indeed, happen. It’s a new problem to think in terms of six potentially interconnected episodes.
How to cope with that hobgoblin consistency!? Obvious. Write one single stand-alone Christmas episode first!