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Sherlock and the Well-Made Play

Simon Pitt | Television | Friday 3rd January 2014

There’s one question left in my mind after watching Sherlock The Empty Hearse. How did all the fans on the internet manage to make GIF sets of the episode so quickly?

After the episode finished, there were dozens of gifs sets already online, three photoshoped T-shirts saying “I don’t Shave for Sherlock Holmes” and one that appeared to be real. How do people do that? Did someone just have a set of iron on t-shirt stickers ready in case anything t-shirt worthy popped up? Does he always have an iron standing by during television programmes in case he urgently needs to make a shirt? Someone even had the time, during the programme to stop and write out all the words Holmes saw on Mary. The ability to pause live TV has a lot to answer for.

The Empty Hearse wasn’t received as a normal piece of television. As Duncan Gates commented on Twitter:

#Sherlock has now fully morphed into a post-modern TV show about what it's like being Steven Moffat writing a TV show.

— Duncan Gates (@Duncan_Gates) January 1, 2014
John’s fiancé is played by Martin Freeman’s actual wife, Sherlock’s parents were played by Benedict Cumberbatch’s actual parents, and Martin Freeman’s moustache was played by an actual fan who won a competition.

The episode was a collection of tricks. At the beginning, they even seemed to be pretending Holmes was James Bond.

To recap for people who have never seen the series: the build up hinged on one mystery. How did Sherlock survive a four story fall. But, as the Guardian points out:

The real issue then, was not how Sherlock managed to survive a four-story fall, but how to make the reveal – after two years of waiting and such great expectations – not feel like a disappointment.

The show pulled this off spectacularly. The opening sequence is one of the best implemented twists I’ve seen for a long time. Ostensibly it showed an increasingly ridiculous vignette or Sherlock surviving the fall. It even featured Derren Brown at one point. “This is bollocks,” L said, “Twitter will be going mental,” just seconds before Greg Lestrade interrupts the mad theory.

There are only really two ways of completing a major cliffhanger like this. One is to have dreamt up an explanation of such breath-taking originality that no one managed to think of it. The other way is to pivot the reveal and make it about something else.

The former is difficult to pull off and think up. It needs to be absolutely simple, while at the same time explain everything. Usually, the one way to do this is to write the whole plot around this one idea. Often these sorts of twists are career-defining. The second method is a trick that requires a different type of cleverness. There’s a real danger in disappointing the audience, as you don’t give them the one thing that they want. This will often result in anti-climaxes or disappointment, but it’s the only way out if you didn’t built the cliffhanger around the solution.

I have a theory about the first approach. It’s got glazing errors in it and crass over simplifications, but I think there’s an element of truth in it. As a general rule, this first method has died out. And I put the death at the late 70s with the rise of Punk subculture. Punk changed narrative trends. Before Punk, sketch shows consisted of Ronnie Barker saying spoonerisms and then doing a silly little dance at the end. Each sketch ended in a punch line that built on the gags throughout the sketch. The audience’s expectation was met. Films and plays hinged on single discoveries that explained everything. That wasn’t the real Inspector Hound. Rosebud was his sled. Soylent Green is people. And so on.

With the rise of counter-culture, though, there was a reaction against this sort of well-structured writing. Funnily enough, this wasn’t the first time this had taken place. In the nineteenth century, the genre of “the well-made play” consisted of a tight plot and climax. But this too was subverted. Ibsen undermined it, Oscar Wilde parodied it. In the theatre it died out in the early twentieth century, feeling trite and bland, but popped up again in TV sketches and films.

By the 1980s, subversive culture like Monty Python and Not the Nine O’Clock News subverted the standard sketch format. Monty Python would regularly have sketches without punch lines, or where the characters were hunting for a punch line. In even well-known sketches like the Dead Parrot sketch, there is no punch line. It ends with a Sergeant-Major walking on and saying “this has all become far too silly” grabbing John Cleese by the arm and saying “you’ve got to do another sketch now”. This would never happen to Ronnie Corbett. No matter how many candles he wanted.

In the twenty first century, we regularly see drama series not providing a standard explanation. Take Battlestar Galactica and Lost for example. Both introduced a mystery for their audience, but by the end, both failed to answer it in any satisfactory way. (In Battlestar Galactica, the main character was an angel or something, and in Lost they were all in purgatory). In many ways, we’ve returned to a Greek/Roman era of drama, by introducing a Deus Ex Machina ending. The situation becomes so complicated that the only way to explain it is with a fudging or reset switch. The re-imagining of Doctor Who ends up using the “reset switch” idea at the end of nearly every series because the stakes become too high. There is just no way of undoing what has happened. I’m reminded of The Simpsons' episode when Principle Skinner says “Now everybody, let’s never talk of this again”. Our writers are thinking up the situation without thinking of any way out of it for themselves.

Given the level of expectation that had built up around Sherlock, there was no way Moffat and Gatiss found themselves in this problem. So they took a different approach. They parodied theories and made the episode not about the one thing everyone thought it was about. What’s clever is they managed to misdirect the fans by giving them so many references, surprises and twists that they would remain satisfied. Which was, of course, was why most of the audience spent so much time on Twitter and Tumblr during the broadcast.

It’s not a trick you can pull off without a dedicated fan base. A normal audience don’t care about the characters as much, and the twist is more important. Here, that’s different. In many ways, the writing of the episode was one almighty act of misdirection. In a way, it was acting out exactly what Holmes was doing too.



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