Plot-free zone: Benedict Cumberbatch (right) and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson in “Sherlock”
The most popular and critically acclaimed drama British television produces lacks drama’s basic component: a coherent plot. Few care. Commissioning editors and the viewing public acclaim Sherlock‘s creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. The press loves them so much it covered their last series as if it were breaking news.
To give you an idea of how slapdash and infantile their writing is, consider one episode of the BBC programme, The Empty Hearse. Sherlock Holmes returns from the dead, after seemingly dying with Moriarty. We find him in a dictatorship for reasons the authors do not bother to explain. His brother Mycroft, a minor figure in the Conan Doyle stories, but an establishment fixer who is everywhere in the television adaptation, saves him from torture. How a civil servant gets from Whitehall to a Slav prison is unexplained again. Holmes returns to London where Watson has found a new girlfriend. Unbeknown to him, she is a former assassin, who killed for the CIA, as so many girls do these days. Rather than tell the viewer straight how Holmes escaped from death with Moriarty, Moffat and Gatiss offer multiple theories they lifted from Sherlock‘s fanatical and rather creepy internet tribute sites. So determined are they to “interact” with the audience rather than allow their actors to act that they go on to put a group of obsessive fans into the script.
For a motive that the writers do not share with the audience until the final episode of the series, and then only cursorily, unknown men kidnap Watson and leave him bound and gagged inside a giant bonfire, which will soon be set alight unless Holmes gets there in time. The actual mystery Holmes is meant to be solving takes up less than a quarter of the programme. It is something about the North Koreans wanting to blow up the Houses of Parliament for reasons that yet again remain mysterious. In that same final episode, Watson’s new love comes out as an ex-CIA assassin. Moriarty tops that by coming out from his grave. He announces his resurrection by taking over every TV and computer screen in Britain.
In Conan Doyle’s stories, the crime is everything. In the modern adaptation it takes third place. The most important task for the writers is to throw in tense relationships between Holmes and Watson, Holmes and Mycroft, Holmes and Mycroft and their parents, Watson and his fiancée, Holmes and possible lovers. Sub-plots come next, appearing and disappearing like water in the sand.
The sight of the most logical of detectives reduced to playing in a zany crime caper was miserable to watch. The first task of a writer is to create an imaginary world that makes sense in its own terms. Conan Doyle might have been offering advice to writers when he had Holmes say to Watson: “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” Moffat and Gatiss cannot produce plots that, however improbable, feel true — and don’t even try.
When you write a story, you make a commitment as surely as if you adopted a political position or declared your love for another. The writer lays himself or herself open to rejection. The audience may find his story ridiculous or boring, and its moral or absence of morals repulsive. They may refuse to make their reciprocal commitment and stick with the story to the end. For the writers of mysteries in particular, not keeping readers is the keenest of failures. The final pages deliver the solution, and a reader who cannot get there will never read their books again. Holmes and Watson are characters who have entered the world’s imagination. But if Conan Doyle had not been able to conclude his mysteries with explanations that made everything that had gone before comprehensible, no-one would have remembered them.
Sherlock avoids all the commitments of a storyteller, and spares the audience from making their commitments too. Moffat and Gatiss are like stand-up comics. If you don’t like this story, they seem to say, we’ve got another one coming. The thin, barely coherent plots may not please, our characterisation may be perfunctory, but we can offer you irony, strained family relationships, friends falling out of friendship and back in again, jokes, romances, knowing references, new technology, banter, special effects and graphics overlaying the film.
The script’s recognition of the show’s fans who obsess about the series on Sherlock‘s websites is suggestive. Sherlock may dispirit anyone who loves storytelling but for the generation brought up on the web, its neurotic flickering between subjects and emotions is the closest television drama has come to mimicking the internet. You do not have to go all the way with the American writer Nicholas Carr — “Google is making us stupid” — to realise the web boosts the fickleness that television remote controls first encouraged when they arrived en masse in the 1980s. You rarely lose yourself in a single consuming experience on the web as you can in a well-written book or drama. You bounce from Twitter to YouTube, to an article a friend has linked to on Facebook. You read the first three paragraphs, grow bored and your wandering eyes see a link to a film trailer. You watch it for 90 seconds, and think about buying a ticket online. But before you find the resolve to commit to hours in a cinema, you decide that you must go back to Twitter to see if anyone has followed you or retweeted your last joke or linked to something interesting or funny in the ten minutes you have been away. You jump from fiction to news to acquaintances, never staying long enough to stick with a story until the end, or understand what lies behind a headline or build an acquaintance into a friendship. No wonder Sherlock is so popular. It fits our time perfectly.
The web is now the main medium of entertainment in the developed world. Television is dependent on it. Its future lies on web iplayers, and probably in commitment-phobic, jittery dramas like Sherlock.
I do not want to put on a portentous voice and predict the death of television drama. Like the “death of the novel” or the “death of newspapers”, it will never happen. But stories in the Sherlock mould will be all around us, filling the screen with bright random patterns and then vanishing.