Saturday, January 2, 2016

Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” (Harstwood Films/BBC-TV, aired January 1, 2016)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After M Charles and I watched the latest episode of the BBC-TV series Sherlock — the sometimes compelling, sometimes maddening, sometimes both simultaneously attempt to refashion the Sherlock Holmes mythos by having Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch in the role that’s made him a star) and Watson (Martin Freeman) still living together at 221 B Baker Street in London, only in the present day instead of the Victorian era when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle created the characters and the mythos. This episode, “The Abominable Bride,” was promoted as a special in which Holmes and Watson, still played by Cumberbatch and Freeman, would be returned to the Victorian era and would solve a crime that took place therein. If that’s what they had done — simply relocated the portrayals of Cumberbatch and Freeman to Holmes’ original time and place — this could have been great, but unfortunately this is a modern TV program and has to pay homage to The Great God Serial. It had to begin with the most infuriating adverb one can hear at the start of a TV series episode — “Previously” — which is usually an automatic turn-off for me: tell me that in order to follow your series I have to watch all its episodes, that’s usually a guarantee that I will watch none. Then it contained the scene of Holmes on a plane from the most recent episode of Sherlock’s immediately preceding season, and after that establishing shot we get a title reading, “Alternatively … ” — and we finally get the return of Holmes and Watson to the Victorian London in which they were born and first loosed upon the world. The story is a good one but the resolution is simply silly: a put-upon wife named Emilia Ricoletti (Natasha O’Keeffe) is shown with two guns, randomly shooting at people in the street and saying disjointed things like, “You’re not the one.” Then she is seen standing in a second-story window putting her gun to her own mouth and pulling the trigger. Then, after her widely publicized and noticed “death,” she turns up again and kills her philandering husband with a shotgun, and afterwards other men are murdered by the ghostly apparition of Nicoletti. We meet Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss in a padded suit) finally looking like the voluminous creature Conan Doyle described — I’ve commented before that Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries are what the Holmes stories would have been if Conan Doyle had made Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes the protagonist — apparently racing to an early grave by eating way more than is good for him and way more than he knows is good for him. (This is at least a refreshing change from the way Mycroft has been portrayed in the recent TV shows — as a rangy, active-looking man in Sherlock and, even worse, a sexual libertine who seduces the sex-changed Dr. Watson in the otherwise quite estimable Elementary, the CBS-TV series that not only moved Holmes to the present day but relocated him to New York and made Watson a woman.)

Then two-thirds of the way through the episode we are abruptly wrenched to the present day — the entire 19th century plot line has apparently been just a hallucination Holmes suffered during drug withdrawal, or something — though in the end Holmes begs to be put back in the 19th century so he can solve the Emilia Ricoletti case (which is apparently a legendarily unsolved murder in Victorian England), for which the principal clue he gets is an envelope of orange pips mailed to one of the victims (you’ll recall the Conan Doyle story “The Five Orange Pips” in which Holmes’ adversaries were the original Ku Klux Klan — as Charles pointed out to me, despite Conan Doyle’s reputation as a conservative his actual political references in the Holmes stories, as well as his real-life involvement in the case of George Edalji, show leanings that today would be considered liberal: against the prosecution of the innocent, against racism, against restrictive divorce laws.) The final half-hour is a farrago of abrupt cutbacks between locations and times, interspersed with a preposterous resolution of the original mystery (it seems “Emilia” had been diagnosed with fatal tuberculosis and decided to go out with a bang, literally, by faking her own death and then assassinating her husband, and after Emilia’s actual death a gang of women activists decided to keep doing the murders, each one dressing up as “Emilia” to knock off her wayward or straying spouse) and ending in, of all places, the Reichenbach Falls and the confrontation thereon between Holmes and Professor Moriarty (Andrew Scott), portrayed as younger and nerdier than usual. I remain an old-school Holmesian who believes Basil Rathbone is still the best actor ever to play him (even though his Watson, Nigel Bruce, way overdid the comic relief) and the first two of the three actors who played Moriarty to Rathbone’s Holmes, George Zucco and Lionel Atwill, were the best ones in their role. But even within the context of an update — and even with Cumberbatch’s excellent Holmes (he may not top Rathbone but he’s a formidable rival to Robert Stephens and Jeremy Brett for second place) — Sherlock annoys me, not so much because it plays fast and loose with a classic character as that it does so to so little effect.