Tuesday, May 7, 2013

What Fans Think about Sherlock (and John!)

What do fans think about the BBC’s Sherlock—in particular, its characters and actors? What do they want to see in the third batch of episodes? I asked those questions of online Sherlock fandom in July 2012, within weeks of Sherlock’s season two broadcast in the U.S. but more than half a year after its seasonal debut in the U.K. Thanks again to those of you who responded to my lengthy survey!

Shortly after the survey was closed, I posted a brief tally of demographic and multiple-choice answers. In the months since, I’ve incorporated the answers to questions or comments about Benedict Cumberbatch in my book, Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition, and provided more statistical data in articles submitted to other publishers. Today, while we wait for filming of the third episode in the third season/series to begin and look forward to three more Sherlock “movies” possibly arriving late in 2013 or early 2014, I want to share survey participants’ comments about the series in general, the actors and characters they play, and a wish list of changes that, if these fans were writing Sherlock scripts, would guide upcoming episodes. (Although I’m a Sherlock fan, I put on my “objective reporter” hat when documenting survey results and blogging about them, so I use “they” for fans instead of “you” or “we.”)

What is the most important reason you like Sherlock?

Of the 565 people who took the survey, 18.6 per cent (105 fans) stated that the well-written scripts are their primary reason for watching. Another 16.1 per cent (91) like the Sherlock-John relationship best, 14.5 per cent (82) tune in to see high-quality acting performances, and 13.1 per cent (74) enjoy the modernization of this adaptation. Other reasons include the following: 7.6 per cent (43) like the production quality of episodes, 4.6 per cent (26) are fans of one or more actors, 3.2 per cent (18) enjoy the mystery plots or the detective genre, 0.4 per cent (2) like the U.K. (primarily London) settings, and 0.2 per cent (1) prefers television series imported from the U.K. As other results later showed, Sherlock is often perceived as worthwhile television entertainment because it is a “package deal”—well-written and –acted, with excellent production values. The series’ succeeds because it excels in all areas, even the ones (like plot) that fans like to debate and unravel with an eye both to continuity and canon.

Finally, 2.5 per cent (14) chose to specify their reason for watching Sherlock after selecting the “other” multiple-choice option. These fans stated they could not limit themselves to one definitive answer. Two lengthier responses are typical of the theme running through the write-in comments: “More than one of the reasons above. High quality of acting, script, filming, design, costumes etc., etc. Also the wonderful chemistry between the actors, the friendship, the humor and just how exciting and engaging it all is” and “I am an old school Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes fan (since I was 11) and I love the way Gatiss & Moffat, Cumberbatch & Freeman have made it brilliant and wonderful again.” Other respondents praised Sherlock as an “intelligent show.” One added a comment about the series being family viewing: “Both my teenage daughter & I enjoy watching it together.” The rest of the responses were variations of “all of the above” or “Can’t it be all?” Fans enjoy this series on many levels: for its value as television entertainment, as a higher-quality television production compared to other series, or even as a catalyst for bonding with family, friends, or other fans.

How is Sherlock different from the other television series you also like?

As is typical in surveys inviting participants to write unique answers, sometimes the responses aren’t usable. Although all respondents were required to write something in the text boxes provided for open-ended questions in order to submit the survey, not all responses to this or other open-ended questions or “other” options were usable as survey results. Some people inserted only a character, such as an asterisk or a question mark, or wrote “no answer” or “N/A” instead of complete phrases or sentences. In this situation, percentages are based on the number of usable answers. For example, although all 565 participants had to write some type of answer, if only 330 responses were evaluated as usable, then the percentage is based on 330.

Answers to this open-ended question were carefully read to ensure that I (and other readers working with me) understood the comments correctly in order to categorize them; we also double-checked answers to make sure we agreed which responses were defined as “usable.” This question resulted in 330 usable responses grouped similar types of responses into these categories:

25.7 per cent (85) High-quality writing, with specific comments about the scripts, dialogue, and on-screen information such as Sherlock’s texts

15.7 per cent (52) Acting

13.6 per cent (45) Directing, cinematography, filming quality, special effects, music, etc. “Movie quality” was mentioned five times within other comments about the series’ production quality.

10.6 per cent (35) More intellectually challenging or stimulating plot twists that hold fans’ attention. This category includes comments about the series’ story content (i.e., topics, subject matter) and episodes’ pace, not specifically about the quality of scripts.

9.3 per cent (31) Sherlock Holmes stories’ characters/modernisation of beloved literary characters/familiarity with literary canon. The modernisation of characters these fans already love was mentioned in the majority of responses, but having Sherlock Holmes as the series’ lead character also was listed six times.

5.4 per cent (18) Length and number of episodes. Fans prefer fewer but longer episodes, although they dislike long hiatuses between groups of episodes.

4.5 per cent (15) Cultural differences between British and U.S. or other countries’ programs

3.6 per cent (12) Preference for mystery/crime/detective genre

3.3 per cent (11) Different genre than that I typically watch: fantasy or science fiction (5), supernatural (2), comedies (2), or police (original emphasis, 2)

2.4 per cent (8) Similarity (not the difference emphasized in the survey question)between Sherlock and other television series that these respondents also like: House (2), Doctor Who (also from showrunner Moffat; 1), NCIS (1), “intelligent shows” (1), or “other detective shows” (1)

2.1 per cent (7) Casting of favorite actors. Within these responses, Cumberbatch was specifically mentioned three times, and the chemistry between Freeman and Cumberbatch twice.

1.5 per cent (5) Fandom, which was praised for its “huge fanbase,” “lots of fan fiction,” “homoerotic tension played up by fandom,” and “as a way to enter Sherlockiana”

0.9 per cent (3) Series’ creators Moffat and Gatiss, who “love & know the Series,” are “brilliant in adapting the series,” or are “genius.”

0.9 per cent (3) Settings/locations, with London specifically listed twice

The following four responses illustrate fan appreciation of Sherlock that goes beyond simple enjoyment of the series as entertainment. Sherlock fans understand the variety of tasks and number of people working on a production behind the scenes to create a single episode; respondents repeatedly mention that they watch episodes more than once and pay attention to details. They analyze not only the stories but the way these stories are told. That fans think of Sherlock as a complete package, with high-quality work at every stage of an episode’s development, is indicated in these representative comments:

“The writers truly deliver the goods. Transforming Arthur Conan Doyle's stories into the modern era is a truly clever and remarkable idea. They, as well as the pre-production team, love to squeeze in a lot of hidden details which one might miss in the first viewing, and so it is very fun to watch it again and gain something new from the episode. The cinematographic techniques are fun and interactive; the direction and acting are first-rate, and the post-production is innovative. I know of no other show that can compare with all this talent.”

“The production quality, the writing, the direction and the acting are all of such excellent quality. I would particularly emphasize the production as being of movie-like quality.”

“It is basically much more like a movie. Writing style, cinematography, plots and so on bring a depth and a weight to it that most other series lack.”

“The obvious love and respect the creators have for the original stories and characters, and for Arthur Conan Doyle, shines through, making this the most heartfelt Holmes series I've ever seen.”

These messages’ content, structure, and word choice show that the respondents took care in writing precisely and in greater detail than might be expected in a long survey that required several written responses. Furthermore, the syntax and word choice indicate that these fans are likely well educated and easily able to express themselves effectively in writing. Although not all responses to this survey question were so long or well phrased, about half of all usable responses were equally effusive.

The following question about the way(s) Sherlock could be improved resulted in three types of responses: 1) the series does not need to be changed, 2) more episodes should be made and broadcast more frequently, and 3) episodes should include specific plot elements that at least some fans want to see. The 502 usable responses to this question were approximately equally divided among these three categories. Typical answers in the “does not need to be changed” category include “It is already perfect,” “Just keep doing what they are doing,” and “I don’t see how it could be better.” Typical entries about improving episodes are “It would be great if we had a series every year instead of every year and a half, but I understand production restraints,” “Coming out more quickly,” and “More episodes more often.”

The greatest variety among responses involves specific interests in a character or scenario. These responses could not be grouped more specifically than a wide-ranging “plot elements that at least some fans want to see” category. For example, a few fans would like to see changes made to Molly Hooper: “Maybe if there was more Sherlolly” or “Molly to be less simpering.” Others wrote they wanted to see more of Mrs. Hudson or Lestrade. However, the majority of responses in this category suggest changes in the way the Sherlock-John relationship is portrayed. Respondents asked for more “Johnlock,” “John and Sherlock snogging,” or “gayness,” but at least a few fans explained more precisely what they would like to see in forthcoming episodes:

“Sherlock and John need to have a frank discussion about how they love each other, but don't want to have sex. I don't like how John keeps saying ‘people will talk’ as if it's a running joke, when their relationship is clearly more nuanced than that.”

“More domestic John and Sherlock. I think their friendship/bromance/pseudo-romance/pre-relationship-ness is what makes the show so wonderful. I think some of the best scenes from series one and two are when Sherlock and John are just in 221b being flatmates.”

To avoid making potentially spoilery comments about this section, I've written a vaguely worded response to this section as a separate blog post, labeled Potential Spoilers Based on the May 7 Blog. If you want to read my comments, please read this separate post after you finish today's blog. Thanks!

What else would fans change?

The series is not above criticism, despite a high number of responses indicating that fans are happy with what they have been seeing. A few respondents suggested greater diversity, from casting to character development:

“It could be less ridiculously white in the modern era. Irene Adler, for instance, could easily have been portrayed by Freema Agyeman or Gemma Chan (these are just examples).”

“More female characters—because there were many in the stories. Along with that, this series takes place in modern London; there shouldn't be an excuse for the lack of female presence. Molly Hooper received more dialogue in the second series, which was wonderful because the show made a point to show she mattered, but Sherlock needs to add more to the females that are already there so they are not just there at the expense of the male characters. Less shamming and using them just as villains—especially Sally Donovan.”

Other fans criticized “plot holes” or complexity in episodes like “A Scandal in Belgravia” that was difficult for some viewers to follow. Three fans wanted the less frequently adapted Conan Doyle stories to become the basis of plots, rather than stories involving Moriarty or Adler, “which everyone knows.” Finally, four respondents wanted to see more—quite literally—of Cumberbatch. One wrote in all capital letters “MORE BENEDICT!!!” and another suggested more nudity for the lead actor.

Such diversity within a category makes it almost meaningless statistically, but the variety of comments shows the many ways in which individual fans relate to Sherlock and want to see aspects of the series reflect their preferences. In some ways, such as a call for more Johnlock, fans would like to see the official television series become more like the fan fiction thriving on many slash or gen forums and web sites. Despite fans’ wide-ranging responses to this question about change, the majority of respondents indicated that they like Sherlock as it is, want to see more episodes, and look forward to enjoying the next group of three episodes.

Actors and Characters

The survey asked two questions about characters: Of these Sherlock characters, which is your favorite in series/season one or two? and Why is this character your favorite in series/season one or two? The former is a multiple-choice question with the characters’ names in alphabetical order by first word, as automatically ordered by the survey software: Anderson, Greg Lestrade, Henry Knight, Irene Adler, Jim Moriarty, John Watson, Molly Hooper, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, Sally Donovan, and Sherlock Holmes, plus an “other” text box.

A higher number/percentage of responses to the multiple-choice character question might be expected to favor first Sherlock, then John. The results are as expected for the two lead characters: 56.6 per cent (320) selected Sherlock Holmes as their favorite character, and 23.0 per cent (130) chose John Watson.

After these characters, the percentages drop considerably: 7.6 per cent (43) Jim Moriarty, 3.4 per cent (19) Molly Hooper, 3.0 per cent (17) Mycroft Holmes, 2.5 per cent (14) Greg Lestrade, 1.2 per cent (7) Mrs. Hudson, 1.1 per cent (6) Irene Adler, and 0.2 per cent (1) each for Sally Donovan and Henry Knight. These percentages also reflect a character’s amount of screen time and role development, or, as is the case with Adler and Knight, significant character development but only in one episode. The more time on screen and prominence of the character, the more likely respondents were to choose that character as “favorite.”

Sherlock and John’s friendship, plus the chemistry of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, created, in many fans’ minds, an inseparable Sherlock-John entity (not, in this case, referring to “Johnlock”). The “other” responses are comments like “I can’t choose Sherlock without John” and “John and Sherlock go together,” as well as “I love them all equally” or “Please don’t make me choose.”

The second question about characters resulted in a variety of “essay” answers that I later grouped by similar content: 40.2 per cent (227) described the character’s personality (e.g., “intelligent,” “evilly genius,” “everyman”) as the primary reason for being a fan’s favorite; 25.1 per cent (142) like a character because of the way an actor portrays him or her; 14.7 per cent (83) like the way a character has been written (e.g., dialogue, backstory, emotional development across episodes); 10.3 per cent (58) prefer this modernization of the character; and 9.7 per cent (55) relate to a specific character (i.e., Molly, John, or Sherlock).

In a similar pairing of questions about respondents’ favorite actor (again stipulating that only one actor could be chosen) and the reason for choosing this actor, the main cast all received votes as fans’ favorite. Cumberbatch was chosen most often (65.6 per cent; 365). As the actor playing the titular character and someone with a high media profile in mid-2012 (the time frame for the survey), Cumberbatch might be expected to be listed as favorite actor most often. Also, this actor has a greater number of fan sites on which to post or otherwise pass along the link.

Freeman was listed as favorite actor by 18.2 per cent (103), Andrew Scott (Jim Moriarty) was favored by 9.0 per cent (51), and Mark Gatiss (Mycroft Holmes) by 2.7 per cent (15). These four actors had more screen time and more prominent roles than the other actors listed in this question. The following regular cast members, as well as one-episode guest actors Russell Tovey (Henry Knight) and Lara Pulver (Irene Adler), were listed as at least one respondent’s favorite: Rupert Graves (Greg Lestrade; 1.4 per cent, 8), Pulver (1.1 per cent, 6); Tovey or Louise Brealey (Molly Hooper; 0.7 per cent, 4); Vinette Robinson (Sally Donovan; 0.4 per cent, 2); and Una Stubbs (Mrs. Hudson; 0.2 per cent, 1). The “other actor” category was used by 1.1 per cent (6) to list groups of favorites, primarily Cumberbatch and Freeman but also “Cumberbatch Freeman Gatiss Graves Stubbs.” Sherlock fans may have had to state a favorite for this survey, but they are very loyal to the entire cast, including guest actors.

The descriptors provided in the follow-up question asking for the reason(s) why an actor was chosen as favorite indicate again how Sherlock actors are viewed as talented professionals in a series that elevates their art, even though each of them also received comments about their sex appeal or personality. These comments were much more difficult to categorize, because each respondent provided more than one reason. Fans’ discussion of Freeman’s work provides a typical example of the range of comments received in answer to the follow-up question:

Martin Freeman

About his acting: “broke my heart,” “from the very first scene he’s brilliant,” “can’t imagine anyone else in the role,” “made me cry,” “believable,” “emotionally compelling”

About physical appearance: “adorable,” “likable face,” “good looking,” “easy on the eye,” “handsome,” “my hedgehog” (a reference to an online series of photographs comparing Freeman to a hedgehog)

About his personality: “funny in interviews” [the quotation “I won a (expletive) BAFTA” from an appearance on The Graham Norton Show was mentioned three times], “made from kittens, jam, and rage,” “lovely, honest guy”

About the actor’s body of work: four references to The Office and The Hobbit

About the respondent’s love for or appreciation of the actor: “I fancy him,” “I just love him”

Fewer comments were made about Gatiss (“he’s very smart,” “he’s funny”), Scott (“he’s such a nice guy in person”), and Graves (“loved him since A Room with a View”). Pulver and Brealey were described as “sweet,” “sexy,” or “seductive.” Some respondents additionally commented that, although they appreciated an actor, they especially like him or her in Sherlock.

The number of comments reflects the percentage/number of respondents choosing an actor as favorite; Cumberbatch received the majority of comments indicating why he is a fan favorite, with the second greatest number of comments about Freeman.

What may be most notable about these fan responses is Sherlock fans’ interest in the actors as much as the series. Results indicate fans’ loyalty to the entire cast and shared appreciation of the series as a whole. A television series often creates one star, or one actor receives all the attention, but, even considering Cumberbatch’s and Freeman’s incredible fame not only through Sherlock but high-profile film roles, fans positively review and make a point to mention all cast members, the creative team behind the series, and the production values. Although these fans generally enjoy the series as it is and have few suggestions to change it, they offered some contextually significant criticisms to broaden the series’ appeal by casting more people of color and making women’s roles more prominent, for example. These fans are devoted to the actors and the characters they play, but they show a special fondness for Cumberbatch/Sherlock and Freeman/John individually but, equally important, together.

On another, but related subject: The Fan/Scholar and Studies in Popular Culture and Celebrity

These results are hardly the proverbial “earth shattering” news that can be attributed to results from some public surveys or scientific questionnaires. They also aren’t the stuff of online polls of the day or instant results. So why bother if the results don’t turn up anything shocking or surprising or provide immediate entertainment value?

A survey should be like an experiment—with an established method of inquiry and a plan in the researcher’s mind. However, great care should be taken so that the results will not be skewed but will be as objectively gathered as possible. Surveys should be created to gather data, and sometimes the results only reinforce what other sources have indicated. That doesn’t mean that the act of experimentation or the results gathered are insignificant. Documenting popular culture and recording what fans think of, in this case, television are important to understanding more about our interests at this particular time and the significance of a specific piece of art (such as Sherlock) in popular culture, now, as well as over time. Whether the results are reported in books, journals, or blogs (and mine have or will be published in all three), the process of asking questions, gathering data, and interpreting results is worthwhile and helps fans, readers, academics, critics, historians, etc., not only see a work of art from a different perspective but to provide a record for the future of what was important, interesting, trendsetting, or commonplace in our popular culture.

The term “fan/scholar” is often used to describe people who enjoy an aspect of popular culture but also learn as much as possible about it, analyze its significance (which is different from reporting facts or the latest news), and document trends (perhaps for posterity). I consider myself a fan/scholar of some very specific aspects of popular culture. If you’ve read any of my (single- or co-authored) books, including those about LOST, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings, as well as Sherlock, then you know the kind of critical interpretation, analysis, documentation, or commentary about a person’s, film’s, book’s, or television series’ significance to popular culture that I write.

In Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition, I take the same approach to an actor’s career, by dissecting a performance, commenting on its place within popular culture, and explaining what career milestones say about our fascination with celebrity. My writing style and type of information are different from what fans might read in an entertainment magazine or newspaper or on a fan site. All of these formats of published information can be enlightening and enjoyable to read, but each has a separate purpose. My method is a combination of reporting but primarily interpreting, to write about not only what but why that’s important or how that reveals something about our culture as much as the person involved.

In the next week or two, I’ll be posting blogs that, I hope, provide a few insights into the ways that Benedict Cumberbatch’s appearances on talk shows, to promote Star Trek: Into Darkness, illustrate this stage of his career and the nature of celebrity. I won’t report what he says so much as how his words or actions signal a new phase to his development as a film star and why his appearances say as much about our expectations of celebrities as they do about the actor. After Star Trek: Into Darkness has had its opening weekend in the U.S., I’ll post my review of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance and its likely place in his evolving career, as well as his significance to the Star Trek franchise—not a typical type of review, but one that fits well with a performance biography.

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