Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sherlock, "A Scandal in Belgravia": Spoiler-free Review

The differences between head and heart are dissected in “A Study in Belgravia,” the Sherlock series 2 episode premiering last night at the BFI. As Mark Gatiss noted then and other reviewers have picked up in their commentaries, the episode illustrates Sherlock and love, rather than Sherlock in love. Make no mistake, however, love is very much in evidence, whether between Sherlock and Mrs. Hudson, or John, or Mycroft. Even narcissistic love and dangerous love become part of the equation once Irene Adler is introduced.

Indeed, the entire screening last night was one big love fest between those who make Sherlock such an incredible entertainment and those who merely sit back and applaud madly. Probably I am the 400th or so person since the screening ended to do so (but not in person—I was shy, or via Twitter—I was afraid of being retweeted for posterity if I gushed awkwardly), but let me add my congratulations to the entire creative team of Sherlock. Specifically, a heartfelt thank you to Mr. Moffat, Mr. Gatiss, Mr. Cumberbatch, Ms. Pulver, and moderator Ms. Moran, who graced the audience during the screening and the stage for the Q&A. Thank you for sharing Sherlock, and last evening, with us.

The biggest “awwww” moment of the night for me didn’t come from the episode itself, although certainly there are many lovely “character” moments within the episode. Mr. Cumberbatch had promised the first query from the audience to a young boy, Oliver, who carefully read his question. He wanted advice to become a consulting detective. Mr. Cumberbatch thoughtfully and seriously gave Oliver some very good tips, a “real answer,” as Mr. Gatiss put it. Now if only Sherlock could learn to be so gracious and sincere.

It’s further testament to the series’ writing and Mr. Cumberbatch’s talent that we enjoy watching Sherlock in part because he hasn’t mastered empathy and kindness for kindness’ sake quite yet—but he’s slightly more socialized in this version, no doubt thanks to his nontraditional family. The relationships in “A Scandal in Belgravia” are richer, deeper, sometimes contentious, but also more genuine and honest. Although John has the capacity to rein in Sherlock’s more egregious behavior, he (or even Lestrade) lets him get away with quite a bit. That Sherlock seems to better understand when his actions are a bit “not good”—and chooses to make amends or just go with his antisocial impulse—adds another dimension to the character.

“Richer” and “multilayered” are perhaps the best spoiler-free words to describe all aspects of this episode. The plot spins at a rapid pace, but not at the expense of character. The story begins where we last left Sherlock, John, and Moriarty, but the scene goes where we least expect it. (I was afraid the cliffhanger would be left unresolved, but resolved it was--in quite a delicious way that, once again, adds new insights into character.) Canon is never sacrificed, even when the writers wink at the audience or give a nod to fandom. The story surprised me, which is quite an accomplishment for a tale that has been around more than a century. Yes, the basic story structure is recognizable, and those who know canon should be pleased with the many references to the original. However, the twists to plot and character make this version a pleasure in unexpected ways. "A Scandal in Belgravia" is new and inventive, as is the way it is told.

Although cinematography is spectacular and engaging throughout the episode, some transitions between scenes are so creative that they momentarily took my attention from the plot. They are not disruptive but so imaginative that they made me see the connections between scenes in an entirely new way. From someone who watches as much television as I do, that is a rare compliment.

The soundtrack is equally memorable. Sometimes it includes a specific, easily recognized sound effect; more often, the evocative music supports and elevates visuals but is enjoyable on its own. I’m looking forward to playing the soundtrack when it becomes available (soon, I hope).

Of course, what would Sherlock be without Martin Freeman as John or Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock? They are superbly cast. Their characters define "couple" in an entirely new way that goes beyond the often-suggested labels of partners, friends, colleagues, or lovers. Who they are defies a convenient category and makes the series stand apart from other dramas. In "A Scandal in Belgravia" Mark Gatiss is given much more to play as Mycroft, and he becomes more frightening but more endearing as we begin to understand his motivations. And what would Sherlock and John do without Mrs. Hudson? Una Stubbs is given more to do in this episode and helps us understand Mrs. Hudson's role within the family dynamic of 221 Baker Street.

If the first series was a lovely gift waiting to be opened and admirable for its outer beauty, “A Scandal in Belgravia” shows us what’s truly inside once we peel off the packaging. All the familiar elements audiences loved about the first series are more complex, and thus more intriguing and meaningful, once we can take a closer look. (You may sometimes want to take a closer look in slo-mo or with pause.) Moffat and Gatiss know how to layer and tease, which is why a revelation is well worth the wait.

As an American making the trip primarily to see Sherlock (and I wasn’t the only way-out-of-towner in this global audience), I can only hope the entire series remains spoiler free until I can watch it at home—unless some kindhearted Brit will adopt me in the new year, for about three weeks. I promise not to watch and tell. Was the BFI premiere worth the trip? Definitely, and not only because I can taunt my friends back home. Will Sherlock be worth the wait, even if that’s until May 2012 or later? Yes. Its quality is amazing for “just television”—think three new films. Its writing dazzles (but may require more than one viewing to catch every word of Sherlock’s rapid-fire dialogue). Its cast is note perfect, from new characters to the well established.

Perhaps on a second or third viewing I’ll have some quibbles as I dissect the episode further. During this first screening, however, I (and the rest of the audience), more than anyone portrayed on screen, fell in love. Maybe that’s what “A Scandal in Belgravia” really is all about.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review of the episode.

    For a different look at this episode, check out my review .