Posts Tagged ‘Television’

Which One, Sherlock?

Sunday, May 27th, 2012

I originally read the Sherlock Holmes cannon back in college. I enjoyed the stories but didn’t love them. Doyle tends to be a bit long-winded and, even when young, I found Holmes’ methods to be more dramatic than scientific. They make for good stories but real crimes are not solved by scuffs on boots and cigar ashes. Often times, the solution to the mystery was either very obvious or not accessible at all until Holmes revealed the extremely esoteric path he followed to suddenly present the solution. My favorite story was Hound of the Baskervilles, which I found wonderfully creepy.

But, over the last decade, I’ve slowly become a Holmes devotee. I re-read the stories when I bought my Kindle and thoroughly enjoyed them. Doyle is still long-winded, but I enjoy the digressions and back stories. And while Holmes’ methods are still more dramatic than scientific, they are fun. I enjoy the journey. And I thoroughly enjoy the character, who is one of the most wonderful in fiction. I think Steven Moffat described him best: Holmes is a man who wishes he were some sort of god.

And that brings me to the point of this post: Holmes is back in the public eye. We have had two movies from Guy Ritchie and a BBC series. And, thanks to Netflix, I’m now watching the classic Granada television adaptations. There a million portrayals out there and I should probably watch the Rathbone films before I even think of blogging about it. But I thought I’d go ahead and address the big question: which Holmes do I prefer so far?

And the simple answer is: all three of them.

The Jeremy Brett television series is the most faithful to the books, virtually a transcription. This is a little bit of a weakness as it tends to be staid and predictable to those who have read the books. The style is very classical and slow. What elevates it to excellent television is Brett, who simply embodies Holmes. His portrayal is as precise as a scalpel. Every gesture and word is exactly as one would envision from the books. There’s a very understated joy in the performance that makes the Holmes character so fascinating.

The Ritchie films are a cut below and probably my least favorite. That’s praising with faint damnation as I enjoyed both films, have the first on blu-ray and will probably buy the second soon. Robert Downey, Jr. is great in the role and has a fantastic chemistry with Jude Law. I wasn’t that taken with Rachel McAdam’s Irena Adler, especially the ridiculous way she was killed off. But Jared Harris’s Moriarity is a wonderful portrayal. And I like the way Holmes’ thinking is portrayed — with rapid edits and quick bursts. This reaches a climax in Game of Shadows when he and Moriarity both think out their moves in advance. I found myself grinning like an idiot in the theater.

The weakness, I think, is that they make Holmes a little too eccentric, especially in the first film. I can not imagine Holmes living in squalor or being so disheveled and mumbling. But … that’s their interpretation (or, more likely, Downey’s). If I can put my image of Holmes aside — and I usually can — I don’t have a problem.

But I think my favorite is the recent Moffat-Gattis effort on BBC. With six movies down and at least three more to go, it has been a pure pleasure to watch them unfold. It combines the best of both worlds: by moving the stories to the present and adapting them, yhere’s enough new to keep the audience on their toes and enough winks and nods to the fans to keep them happy. The casting has been strong and the secondary characters — particularly Lestrade and Adler — have been outstanding. The portrayal of Holmes’s thoughts, his use of technology, his controlled eccentricities — all are perfect. And the dialogue and plotting are as sharp as you would expect from the team that has made Doctor Who one of the best shows on television.

But what makes it great are the two leads. Cumberpatch embodies Holmes the same way Brett did — as a precise arrogant genius who borders on sociopathy. His portrayal is much more sarcastic than Brett’s but flows from the same vein: portraying Holmes as man who thinks of himself as more than human. And Martin Freeman is simply one of the best Watsons. There is a tendency to make Watson kind of dumb so that Holmes looks smarter. Good productions — like the Ritchie films and Granada series — stay away from this. Freeman’s Watson is smart, tough and can (almost) match Holmes quip for quip. The chemistry between them is so good, the constant jokes about them being gay partners don’t hit a false note.

We’ll see if Moffat and Gattis can keep the ball in the air for another series (and if Ritchie can). But … so far … it’s a great time to be a Holmes fan.

Fantasy Death

Monday, May 14th, 2012

This article, which talks about the way fantasy and sci-fi fans react to characters being killed off, reach a conclusion I find ridiculous:

I believe the discomfort comes down to the base fear of death and uncertainty that people face every day. Death is a subject that makes people uncomfortable. It doesn’t surprise me then that people would have such emotional reactions to fictional character death. They come to fiction to be taken away from the concerns of their everyday life. When confronted with the sudden death of a beloved character, viewers and readers are jarred into dealing with the uncertainty of life in their fiction and that can be unnerving. Look at reactions to the first murder in Psycho, or the death of Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter as examples outside of Martin and Whedon if you will, as they’re not the only writers who use the tactic to drive the emotional point home.

This is psychoanalytical bullshit. The reaction of fans is much more down to Earth. They realize that these characters are fictional. And so killing them off is the writer’s choice, not something that just happened. Even the phrase “killing them off” acknowledges this.

What fans object to is not a character dying, but a character being killed in what feels like an arbitrary and capricious way. No one — NO ONE — objected to Spock being killed in Star Trek II. It was a great way to go, it was an emotional wallop and it was utterly consistent with the theme of the movie and his character. It was one of the best moments in the movies. People did object to Data being killed in Star Trek: Nemesis because it felt arbitrary and stupid. There was no reason for it to happen other than to shock us and try, unsuccessfully, to recreate the punch from Star Trek II.

Numerous sci-fi/fantasy deaths are well-regarded: Theoden’s fall in Lord of the Rings, Vader in Star Wars, Roy in Blade Runner, Ries in The Terminator, Kong in King Kong, Theo in Children of Men, Kosh in Babylon 5, the Knight’s pending death in Seventh Seal and Dumbledore’s fall in Harry Potter. All of these were cases were the death was consistent, reasonable and even noble.

If you look at the deaths that are poorly regard, they tend to be of the arbitrary “eh, shit happens” type: Trinity and Neo in The Matrix Revolutions, Padme in Revenge of the Sith, Ripley in Alien 3 or almost all the death in The Dark Tower.

I have not seen Game of Thrones or Buffy, but I did see Serenity. I didn’t object to the characters being killed. What I most objected to was Wash being killed so arbitrarily (and even then, I didn’t object that much, even though I loved his character). Yes, life is like that, especially a dangerous life. But we want to see our characters go down fighting, to die for a reason.

I mean, seriously: you’re going to take us on a journey with magic and swords or laser guns and faster than light travel; and suddenly you want to be all realistic when it comes to the characters being killed?

That’s the problem. We realize that we are in a fantasy world. And if our characters are going to go down — by the choice of the writer — we want them to go down for a reason.

Tuesday Linkorama

Tuesday, May 1st, 2012
  • So my daughter has taken to watching My Little Ponies: Friendship is Magic lately. I’m fine with it, since the show is a lot more sophisticated than the stuff she’s liked before. It’s also far less abrasive and ugly than most of the animation that dominates morning TV. Still, I do not understand the brony phenomenon. Really?
  • The best magazine articles ever?
  • The amazing thing about environmental fear-mongers it that they are never discredited by being totally and completely wrong. Thankfully, a handful will own up to it.
  • This story, about potentially innocent men not being informed about flaws in the evidence against them, is appalling and should be bigger. Where the anti-big-government types when it comes to getting innocent people out of jail?
  • The thing that strikes me about this photo essay about the poorest place in America is how relative poverty is. I’m not saying they are not poor or are facing few prospects. I am saying that if you saw the same thing in much of the world, you’d think you were looking at the richest part of the country.
  • The TV Curve

    Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

    Cracked, again one of my favorite websites, has an infographic on the rise and fall of TV shows, arguing that they start out shaky in the first season, get better the second, reach a plateau and then start to decline by the sixth.

    This is more accurate than they realize. One thing I used to do was copy episode ratings from and see how the quality of shows changed over time. I love analyzing pointless data — hence the astronomy career. Anyway, the ratings allowed me to look the evolution of TV shows from a biased but consistent point of view. Biased, because they are online ratings and do not necessarily reflect the general audience’s perception. But consistent, because they are the same or similar audiences (and the registration requirement mitigates vote rigging).

    A few things I discovered, based entirely on these ratings:

    First, most TV shows tends to follow a pattern very similar to the one described by Cracked.

    1) At first, the quality is uneven, slowly improving, but with the occasional clunker thrown in.

    2) The show hits its stride and is consistently good.

    3) The clunkers begin to reappear and the quality falls.

    4) The show ends.

    No show, none, exemplifies this pattern better than The X-Files. I started watching in season four, when it was simply outstanding television. The sixth season was still good but the seventh was hurting, the eight was bad and I didn’t even watch the ninth. As the infographic notes, a big problem becomes twisting characters to fit plot … in this case, keeping Mulder and Scully from hopping into the sack because the writers thought it would ruined the show. It would have … but sometimes you got to let characters do what characters are going to do.

    Some shows have an accelerated curve. Star Trek hit its stride almost immediately but had a bad third season. I would argue that Friends did the same thing — putting together a couple of great seasons before falling apart and turning its characters into caricatures.

    Other shows end before the decay phase can kick in. Babylon 5 was consistently great after the first half of its first season. It decayed a little bit in the early fifth season but recovered by the end. Fortunately, by ending the series at five seasons and having the plot written in advance, Joe prevented the decay phase. Star Trek the Next Generation also lacked a decay phase, although, in my opinion, it was showing some decisive cracks in its seventh season.

    Doctor Who shows a number of interesting patterns. The ratings jump when it went to color, stay high through the 70’s, peaking in the late-Pertwee, early-Baker eras. The ratings collapse in the Baker II and McCoy era before recovering with a strong season right before the show was cancelled.

    Although I haven’t run the numbers on the latest season, the first four seasons of the new series were rated as high as the classic series, with a slow improvement in both quality and consistency. This improvement is mostly the disappearance of dreck like Love and Monsters.

    So how did Doctor Who avoided the typical pattern of improvement, peak and decline? Or at least stretch it out over 26 years? By constantly turning over actors, directors and producers. Doctor Who was constantly remaking itself — from the educational show of Hartnell to the suspense of Troughton to the action-adventure of Pertwee to the gothic horror of early Baker. In fact, the decline of Doctor Who occurred, quite possibly, because a producer who had reinvigorated the show stayed on too long.

    That’s one of the great things about Russell T. Davies leaving Doctor Who. He did a great job, but his era was showing cracks at the end, with episodes getting more and more outlandish and ridiculous. Fortunately, Matt Smith and Steven Moffat have, to some extent, reinvented the show and we’re looking at another good run.