Thursday 1 November 2012

Are you a Cumberbitch?

Alexandra Sokoloff

If you know what I’m talking about, you know what I’m talking about.   If you don’t, you’ve somehow been missing out on the biggest thing since Jesus.  I mean, you know, since the Beatles.

So (in honor of the last episode of Season 2 this week) I'd like to talk today about the new Sherlock Holmes.  Those of you who know can just scream and faint in the background, there, while I fill the others in.  And for the hopelessly straight men (you know who you are) you’re just going to have to endure a little erotomania.

Once in a while there is in film or television or music what has become known in technology as a Black Swan.  Something that defies all expectations at the same time meeting all the expectations you never actually knew you had.  And that's a good enough definition for the Masterpiece Mystery! TV series, Sherlock.

The series is brilliant – a redefining of Sherlock Holmes exactly as he would present himself in modern London, complete with e mailing, texting, GPS—and blogging by his faithful Boswell, John Watson, a veteran doctor who was wounded in Afghanistan, just as the original Watson was (I mean, when something is right, it’s right, right?).  And Sherlock is as he is depicted, an unfettered and unrepentant autistic-slash-high-functioning sociopath.

And a rock god.

An unfettered and unrepentant autistic-slash-high-functioning sociopath of a rock god.

The tagline for the show is “Smart is the new sexy.” And that pretty much sums it up.  This is not just a modern imagining of one of the - or is it THE? - world’s most popular and enduring detectives.  It’s a sexual fantasy for smart people.  And may I say it’s about bloody time we got one?

This is the unlikely catnip at the heart of this show:


A truly incredibly actor with the unlikely name of Benedict Cumberbatch (who is now banking upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars, or at least tens of thousands, for every time he was ever called Cumberbitch as a kid. It’s revenge of the geeks in spades).

You really need to see the real-time reactions of women, girls, men, boys, dogs, horses to this actor to understand the physiological phenomenon going on here.  There are fan groups that call themselves Cumberbitches.  There are cat fights over him on Facebook (think Dionysus, Maenads...) Mention his name or the word Sherlock to a girl (or boy) of fifteen or a woman (or man) of fify and you will get the same helpless, delirious giggling.  That’s actually part of the appeal, the group experience, the knowing that you are not the only one dissolving into goo over this man and this show. And if you are not a fan, you might as well move to Antarctica, because you are going to be seeing Cumberbatch in every movie that Hollywood can cram him into for the next fifty years (fortunately, I think he’s beyond smart enough to choose his roles and limit his exposure.)

I admit that I become flushed and breathless when he launches into one of his twenty-pages-in-a-minute and-a-half-monologues about who ate what pastry at which Tube stop after whichever assignation with whatever coworker that is a trademark of the show.  But my actual fantasies about Cumberbatch are not exactly sexual; they’re more about going back to school in lighting design just to be able to properly light the man’s face.  These are the cheekbones that launched a thousand ships. He is literally golden-eyed.  And I say “man”, but one of the guilty pleasures of the show is that this is a thirty-five-year-old man who looks and acts like the world’s most precocious fourteen-year-old; you feel as if you’re committing a felony just watching it.

One of the delicious ironies of the show is that all of this extreme sexual response from TV fans all over the world is occurring over a character who is not only massively socially incompetent but patently asexual.   The character is explicitly referred to as a virgin, although the gay subtext is – not subtextual at all. This is a love story. But still, clearly unconsummated. (Or is it? It's your fantasy, after all...)

All this sexual confusion I think is one of the delights of the show.  It is polymorphous perversity in the flesh. Well, in the flesh on screen. The creators even make Doyle’s Irene Adler character a dominatrix (not the world’s most convincing one, in my opinion, but anything further I could say on the subject will only get me in trouble so I’ll refrain) who is just as fritzed out by Sherlock the virgin as he is by her.

But there's more to it than the sex, I swear. This is a truly perfect melding of an actor and a role.  Cumberbatch is a star, period - I loved him as Stephen Hawking in Hawking, he conveyed not just brilliance but a heartbreaking sweetness and innocence as the young Hawking. But Sherlock is a career-defining role. It reminds me a bit of Cary Grant, before and after Hitchcock got hold of him. Grant was clearly one fine hunk of actor even in the fluffy romantic roles he did early in his career, but it was the darkness and edge and ambiguity that Hitchcock saw and encouraged (or should I say demanded?) in him that made him an iconic, archetypal movie star. (Take a look at Cumberbatch in Masterpiece's pre-Sherlock miniseries The Last Enemy. There are hints of Sherlock, there, in the irritated monologue the character finally explodes into on national television, the kind of monologue that makes you say THERE.  Do THAT. Much more of THAT.  Please forget the love plot and just let this guy talk, and visibly think, on screen.)

Clearly creator/writers (of Dr. Who fame) Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also wonderfully portrays Sherlock’s fussy and hovering older brother Mycroft), have that masterful Hitchcockian understanding of the material and their star. They saw it, and they gave him what he needed.  It's filmmaking collaboration in its most perfected state, the stuff that dreams (and smart people's sexual fantasies) are made on.

The writing is stellar, wicked and joyous and - I'll say it again, unrepentant; I’ve had whole years of my life that haven’t given me as much pleasure as the scene in which Sherlock compulsively corrects a convict’s grammar.

And yes, there is a Team Watson, and I don’t at all mean to give Martin Freeman short shrift; he is the perfect, earthy, touchingly maternal counterpart to Sherlock (talk about catnip, I so LOVE that adenoidal British voice), and I’m also thrilled to have Rupert Graves as Detective Inspector Lestrade.  (Graves is a former punk rocker I’ve adored since he made his sizzling acting debut as little brother Freddy in Merchant/Ivory/Jhabvala’s swoony Room with a View).  I wasn’t quite as thrilled with Andrew Scott as little-boy-psychopath Moriarty in the first season, but he grew on me in season two; there was just a certain way he bared his teeth that was endearing enough to make me stop hating him for the two seconds required to commit to an arch villain.

You’ll notice I’m not expounding on the plot lines (I’m too busy designing lights over here....).  I confess, it’s been a long time since I’ve read anything in the Sherlock canon, but the episodes are surprisingly true to the plot lines of the Sherlock stories I remember from my childhood. The episodes are not strict adaptations, but there are plenty of clever-to-brilliant references and homages for those in the know. The plots work just fine, and there are always wonderful setpieces (the Chinese circus setting in Episode 2(?) is truly dazzling), but it’s the character interaction, chemistry, and the dialogue that provide most of the breathtaking suspense. And to be perfectly honest, I’d have to watch every episode again to be able to focus on the plots because I simply DON'T CARE; I am way too busy being dazzled by - other things (and remember, I TEACH structure,  I’m telling you, this is how bad it is!).

As for social and cultural relevance, Sherlock makes Asperger’s both normal and attractive, which in an age driven by minds like the late Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg makes the whole show not just topical but inevitable. There is something uncannily true about the series.  We KNOW this Sherlock; he is the natural, timeless, entirely present-tense incarnation of an immortal character.

He is US.

So— those of you who don’t know Sherlock like I know Sherlock, go treat yourself to a little Holmes crack, available on Netflix and Amazon and iTunes.   I dare you not to get hooked.

And for all you Cumberbitches, pull up a chair, grab the riding crop, slap on a couple of nicotine patches and let’s dish.  What is it about this show?  What does it do for you?

And yes, let's hear about other perfect portrayals of classic characters, too.

- Alex

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