Sherlock Season One on Masterpiece Mystery PBS – A Review

Masterpiece Mystery Sherlock banner 2010

Guest review of Masterpiece Mystery’s Sherlock: Season One by the co-author of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter: A Novel of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Caitlen Rubino-Bradway

Recently, Masterpiece Mystery aired BBC’s contemporary update of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, simply titled Sherlock. Now, I think I should admit up front that I am an amateur Holmes fan.  I enjoy the stories, and of course Holmes and Watson are classic, but that’s about as far as I go.  So the fact that the new Sherlock series changed a lot (according to Holmes-philes I know) doesn’t rouse in me the fiery indignation of, say, Donald Sutherland interviewing that his Pride and Prejudice 2005 Mr. Bennet was deeply in love with his wife.

I have some little experience with adapting a famous author’s work, and I think the trick with adapting anything is deciding what you want to keep and what you can afford to lose.  Just to take a completely random example right off the top of my head, when my mom and I wrote Lady Vernon and Her Daughter (recently released in trade paperback), we decided that historical accuracy and keeping true to Jane Austen’s style was more important than maintaining the original Lady Susan’s Snow White’s Evil Step-mother personality.  The people behind Sherlock made the opposite choice; the focus seems to be on character and tone, while they sacrificed setting and structure.  As a result, the episodes still feel very Sherlock Holmes, even if the story plays out more CSI than ACD.

A Study in Pink – Sunday, October 24, 2010

We’ve got a serial killer! Love those, there’s always something to look forward to.”  Sherlock Holmes

The new series has just three episodes, all drawing heavily from classic Holmes’ stories.  The first, A Study In Pink — based, obviously, on Study in Scarlet — introduces Watson and Holmes (as well as Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft, Lestrade, and the shadowy puppet master Moriarty) and follows them as Holmes tries to solve a rash of not-so-voluntary suicides.  In fact, the mystery, while always present, doesn’t take center stage until fifteen minutes in, and the build up is focused more on setting up Watson and Holmes’ partnership.  As well it should, say I, because while the original stories are nonpareil, and Hound of the Baskervilles still gives me chills, what I love most about the Sherlock Holmes’ stories is the friendship, and watching these two interact.  Sherlock does not disappoint; they cast two very good actors whose portrayals I can get behind.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is fascinating and frustrating, a Holmes who is surrounded by (comparative) idiots, who needs something to do, who more than anything else wants a challenge.  He understands how and why people act, much like an anthropologist understands the primitive culture they’re studying, but he’s not on the same wavelength.  Interacting with humans as a human is a little beyond him —particularly illustrated in Pink, when Holmes demands to know why a woman would be so fixated on a baby she lost years ago.

It’s clear, however, that Cumberbatch and Sherlock are focusing on Holmes’ need for work, and his frustration in dealing with the people around him.  They ignore a crucial part of Conan Doyle’s character — that he is always a gentleman, especially to women.  Cumberbatch’s Holmes often comes across as either blind or intentionally rude, which can leave a bitter taste in your mouth.  Cumberbatch’s Holmes doesn’t care about the people involved in his cases, only the clever little knots he has to untie.  Conan Doyle’s Holmes, whatever he felt, was always “a chivalrous opponent.”

As for Martin Freeman’s Watson, I adore him.  I’ve always preferred Watson to Holmes, because I always find the Clark Kent more interesting than the Superman.  It’s a straight out relief to see a Watson who doesn’t seem like he should be accompanied by bumbling tuba music.  Freeman’s Watson is a more than capable companion for Holmes, best illustrated in a scene in Pink, where he stares down a creepy and mysterious man and turns down his offer to spy on Holmes without a blink.  He enjoys when “the game is afoot” as much as Holmes, but only up to a point because he also realizes that it isn’t a game, not really, because there are people involved.

The Blind Banker – Sunday, October 31, 2010

I’m the great Sherlock Holmes, I work alone ’cause no one can compete with my massive intellect!” Dr. John Watson

The Blind Banker, the second episode, is inspired by The Dancing Men and The Sign of Four.  Our story starts when Holmes is contacted by an old school chum who wants to know how someone broke into his ultra-secure office.  At the same time a young woman who handles Chinese antiquities at a museum disappears.  Of course these two stories eventually intertwine, bringing along a group of Chinese smugglers, an acrobatic killer, and the hunt for a missing and extremely valuable artifact.

I didn’t like Banker as much as the first episode; I had to watch it several times to get all of the details, and there was less of what I liked about Pink — the Holmes and Watson stuff, the playful feeling, and the sense of something actually being at stake, especially as there were a lot of little things brought up and then dropped.  Holmes’ old school buddy is treated like an afterthought, and the identity of the mysterious gymnastic killer was completely pointless in the scheme of things.  Overall I left the episode wondering more about whether there are there actually teapots that are thousands of years old that need to be maintained through use.

Also — so, Dead Man #1 (or #2, I forget which) gave his girlfriend a hairpin as a make-up present.  When it’s discovered to be not just any hairpin but an Ancient Chinese Hairpin, she then…gets to turn around and sell it for millions?  Even though her boyfriend stole this historic artifact?  She wouldn’t have to hand it back to the Chinese Department of Antiquities, or whoever handles that stuff? If you know how this would work, feel free to help me out in the comments.

The Great Game – Sunday, November 07, 2010

Sherlock: “Look at that, Mrs. Hudson. Quiet, calm, peaceful… isn’t it hateful?

Mrs. Hudson: “Oh, I’m sure something will turn up, Sherlock. A nice murder, that’ll cheer you up.

The third and last episode, The Great Game, was inspired by Die Hard 3.  This one was my least favorite, especially as it was sadly lacking in Jeremy Irons.  While we did get some good character bits from the Dynamic Duo, the story falls into the well-traveled serial-killer-taunts-detective territory that we’ve all seen a thousand times.  As our story opens, Holmes is dying of boredom — the only thing on his plate, the mysterious death of a government agent and some missing, top-secret documents that his brother wants him to look into.  Things pick up very quickly, though, when a psychopath starts strapping bombs to people and making Holmes race to solve cold cases before time’s up.

On the whole, it wasn’t a bad episode, just very formulaic. The Great Game is the farthest away from a traditional Holmes story, and much more of a traditional action mystery.  I was particularly disappointed with Moriarty.  While I think they nailed their portrayals of Holmes and Watson, I wasn’t impressed or frightened by their Moriarty, which are two things you should be when meeting someone who can take on Sherlock Holmes.  Clearly they were going for Unbalanced Criminal Genius, but I just saw one of those annoying attention-seekers who wants everyone to know how gosh darn wacky they are.  I never really believe those kinds of characters as heads of international criminal organizations, unless they have a top-notch personal assistant handling all the details.  Sure, you have a brilliant plan for stealing the Mona Lisa, but who is going to make sure that the special package gets picked up from the secret drop-off while you’re taunting your arch-nemesis?

But those are all minor complaints.  I really enjoyed Sherlock, and was happy to hear that the series was a big success, and more episodes are already in the works.  I for one am looking forward to them, though I hope this time the Brits won’t get to see them four months ahead of us again.

Lady Vernon and her Daughter, by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino Bradway (2010)About the reviewer: Caitlen Rubino-Bradway and her mother, Jane Rubino, are the authors of Lady Vernon and Her Daughter, a reimagining of Jane Austen’s classic novella Lady Susan and the short story What Would Austen Do in the forthcoming anthology Jane Austen Made Me Do It to be published by Ballantine Books in October 2011. Caitlen’s first solo work, a children’s fantasy, is scheduled to be released in early 2012. Visit Caitlen and Jane at their blog Janetility.

Further viewing & reading

Text © 2010 Caitlen Rubino-Bradway, image © MASTERPIECE 2010

Small Island on Masterpiece Classic PBS Survives a Cold Embrace by the Mother Country – A Recap & Review

Image from Small Island: Naomie Harris © 2010 MASTERPIECEThere is a lot of pride and prejudice in the story of Small Island, the new Masterpiece Classic two-part adaptation of Andrea Levy’s award winning 2004 novel. Not the Jane Austen kind of pride and prejudice, but the kind experienced by millions of people whose countries were colonized by Great Britain during the 18th and 19th centuries. This particular story involves Hortense and Gilbert, two Jamaicans who immigrate to England in 1948, but could apply to native East Indians, Africans or Asians whose young men and women proudly served their Mother Country during WWII only to experience the cold embrace of prejudice and poverty in their new home. This story plays upon the dark underbelly of postwar racial discrimination in England paralleling the intersecting lives of  one white and one black couple that is painful to experience but uplifting in its conclusion.

This griping story presents two women from modest beginnings born on opposite sides of the Atlantic, each with a strong desire to improve their lives but naïve expectations on how to achieve it. In 1939 Jamaica, Hortense Roberts (Naomie Harris) is a young black woman from a broken home who has been raised by her father’s cousin, a strict minister with a rebellious son Michael Roberts (Ashley Waters) who is a charmer and a rogue. Hortense is an idealistic dreamer who not only envisions Michael as her future husband and savior but wishes to immigrate with him to London where they will live the good life in a house with a garden, electricity in every room and a bell at the front door. Unfortunately, he only sees her as his little sister and channels his affections toward a young married white woman. After Michael’s affair is discovered and revealed by Hortense he is disowned by his family and enlists in the RAF. In London he becomes involved with an unhappily married white woman Queenie Bligh (Ruth Wilson) and is later reported missing in action.

Image from Small Island: David Oyelowo © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Heartbroken, Hortense pines for Michael but continues to study and obtains her teaching credentials while accumulating a small savings and developing fine airs. After the conclusion of the war she is determined to immigrate to England and seizes upon a plan to bribe ex-soldier Gilbert Joseph (David Oyelowo) into a marriage of convenience in exchange for his passage fare to England with the plan that he will obtain her dream house and later send for her. Meanwhile, Queenie’s stiff and inept husband (Benedict Cumberbatch) does not return to her and their run-down row house in London after the war but bad penny Michael does, resuming their grand passion for a weekend. Gilbert arrives in worn-torn London and reconnects with Queenie who he had met during the war. To make ends meet she continues to take in borders and rents a modest room to Gilbert. Hortense arrives with a packet of luggage and her distorted expectations of her fine new life in England to find him living in squalor and misgivings. Hortense soon discovers that England is not the land that she had idolized and Gilbert experiences an intense racial prejudice from an emotionally and economically drained nation who would prefer he and his wife return to Jamaica. When Queenie’s husband unexpectantly returns home to find the neighborhood scandalized by her inter-racial household and her hidden pregnancy, it will take the birth of her baby and her great sacrifice to heal his prejudice to the Joseph’s and indifference to his wife.

Image from Small Island: Ruth Wilson and Ashley Waters © 2010 MASTERPIECE

As I was writing this synopsis it struck me that whittling down the narrative to its bare bones makes it seem silly and soap operaish. Only with the added embellishment of dialogue, scenery and powerful performances from the two outstanding female co-leads Naomie Harris and Ruth Wilson supported by David Oyelowo’s energized interpretation of Gilbert and Benedict Cumberbatch’s unappealing yet sympathetic Bernard save it from becoming trite melodrama. There is no doubt that this is intense drama based on the controversial subject of racial prejudice, oppression and England’s treatment of her colonial children. Even offset with a touch of humor viewers will feel continually on edge and emotionally drained until the last uplifting moments. Director John Alexander (Sense and Sensibility 2008) blends the transitions from present day and flash backs seamlessly and draws out performances from his cast that will garner attention come award season. Despite its dark theme, Small Island does occasionally shine and glitter drawing attention to a period of British history that some would like to forget and others proudly claim as their heritage.  The second episodes airs next Sunday, April 25th on PBS.

Image from Small Island: Benedict Cumberbatch © 2010 MASTERPIECE

Sadly, this is the conclusion of the 2010 season of Masterpiece Classic which brought us two classic bonnet dramas with Return to Cranford and Jane Austen’s Emma, a remake of WWI-era vintage spy thriller in The 39 Steps, two episodes of the exploits of early nineteenth-century British soldier Richard Sharp and a remake of The Diary of Anne Frank. With Small Island, Masterpiece is hoping to reach a younger audience with its more contemporary theme and grittier fare. I can not say that I am thrilled with their decision to move away from adaptations of classic literature that they have become known for, but I admire their courage to push their audience in a new direction.

Images courtesy © 2010 MASTERPIECE