The Sherlock Phenomenon

by Bruce-Bowden

Just who and what are fueling the continuing "Sherlock" craze? Here we find out.

After only one episode of the latest BBC adaptation, the world was hooked. Now, after nine, it is desperately looking for its next fix. Surprisingly, a character who has existed for over a century has become an overnight success yet again. A success on a global scale, from America to China. And if you are a fan, you may also have contributed to this phenomenon.

Uniqueness is key to the stand out popularity of "Sherlock". The original figure brought to life by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the first "forensic" detective. He now includes a smart phone in his work, is a high functioning sociopath, and is followed by a huge fan base inside and outside of the episodes.

Here, In the manner of Sherlock, we aim to forensically investigate these and other unique aspects of the TV series.

If I Were Sherlock
If I Were Sherlock

The Character of Sherlock

"I am a high functioning sociopath," Sherlock announces proudly. Although the Original character penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was not really sociopathic, he was undeniably unique and separated from normal people by his abilities. This Sherlock, however, seems quite happy with his life, cut off from normal human emotional problems.

Funnily enough, this is something that gradually changes through the first, second and third series (seasons). He becomes more human, due largely to his growing friendship with John Watson, and to the mothering influence of Mrs Hudson. Many of the original character's deductions involved an empathetic understanding of human emotions, so how does our high functioning sociopath compensate for this gap in his personality?

Quite simply, by using his Mind Palace. Sherlock's mind contains a gigantic vault of information on almost everything. In that vault are many observations of human behavior made by experts in the field of psychology. Dispassionately, he can understand human emotions in a textbook fashion, a sort of: slot B joins onto tab C kind of way. Whether he really is a sociopath or has just built a protective wall around himself is open to debate.  

Essentially, though, he is basically the original Sherlock Holmes, the same one-man band detective. Although he does occasionally get help from Molly the pathologist and from the police forensic department. Additionally, he has powerful tools that the original character could never have dreamed of - a smartphone and a computer.

The creators and writers, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, are quick to acknowledge the original genius of Conan Doyle in producing such an amazing character.

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The Writing

Fast-paced, funny, intelligent, unpredictable; these are just some of the adjectives that describe the mixture that puts Sherlock in a league of its own. The co-writers display their imagination and wit as they have in other TV creations. Both Gatiss and Moffat have worked on BBC's Dr Who and Gatiss has co-written and appeared in the comedy  series The League of Gentlemen.

In Dr Who, their imagination can have free reign and has led to highly enjoyable yet implausible story lines. This same quality, when attached to the rigid framework of Sherlock Holmes, enriches the original canon and somehow makes it more believable.

Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the dialogue. For example, the banter between our hero and John is entirely recognizable as something two close friends would exchange in real life, though extremely witty by comparison. We do not feel that there is some sort of formula behind it, as we do with so many detective shows. 


"I Had Bad Days"

Rather than the "By Jove, Holmes" type of Dr Watson, Martin Freeman's Watson has been written as an ordinary bloke, as we say in England. His ordinariness gives us personal access to Sherlock, making us feel that we could also be in his presence and have the same relationship with him. Instead of going along with Holmes, as in so many incarnations, he often confronts him, openly disagreeing with and displaying frustration and anger towards him.

If there is any formula, it is in the ordering of individual episodes. The first episode in each series is stunning and breathtaking, keeping us on our toes, forcing us to hit the rewind button again and again to keep up. The second episode is where we can relax and take in the scenery. We can enjoy the banter at a more leisurely pace as we wait and prepare for the final episode. In that final one, we are swept along quickly again to an exciting cliffhanger.

Interviewing the Writers

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“Fans of the first trilogy will unquestionably return for this second installment…but newcomers should drop everything and jump on board.”- (The Hollywood Reporter)


"It is written like it is John Watson's scrapbook and there are post it notes throughout from Sherlock and John!" - J.C. Goldenburg

The Cast

As If the character of Sherlock and the writing were not enough, there is a ridiculously good cast with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman taking the lead. Gatiss and Moffat singled out Cumberbatch as the only one for the role of Sherlock. A great many actors were auditioned for the role of Watson, but aren't we glad that Freeman finally nabbed it. His portrayal of an average Joe in The Office, which originated in the UK, was truly amazing. The relationship between these two actors is the foundation of Sherlock.

Mrs Hudson actress Una Stubbs calls out, "Sherlock," elongating the second syllable with a whine, like an exasperated mother. Her beautifully played character is much more prominent than the original. Again, this adds another dimension which sets this version apart.

The chemistry in the show must owe a lot to the almost nepotistic casting. Una Stubbs was a close friend of Cumberbatch's parents and speaks of a time when she and his mother were chatting while noticing that the boy Benedict looked bored. Both of his parents play Sherlock's parents, by the way. Oh, and Martin Freeman's real life girlfriend  (Amanda Abbington) plays his wife, Mary, on the show.

A show must be classed as extraordinary when one of its creators plays a major character in it. Mark Gatiss is perfect as Sherlock's equally strange brother, Mycroft. Some critics believe that he even steals some of the scenes from Cumberbatch. Well, he must know the script better than anyone else.  


The Production

It would be difficult to argue that the visual impact of Sherlock has nothing to do with its success. The audience loved it when suddenly they saw words floating across the screen, showing Sherlock's thought processes. We could now enter into his very mind in real time.

When you think about it, this idea did not need to wait for a modern adaptation. It could have been achieved in the very first cinematic version of the last century. This idea just seems right nowadays, when we are so familiar with words on our computer screens and cellphones.

We have director Paul McGuigan (Lucky Number Slevin) to thank for this fantastic idea. Through this one device we can start solving the mystery ourselves before Sherlock even speaks. Think of how much time and exposition this saves.

It is not only that, but also the extremely stylish cinematography by McGuigan and other contributors that enhance our enjoyment. All of this is in harmony with the beautifully crafted music.

Fittingly, the production team's imagination equals that of the creators. Look at some of their scene transitions in the next YouTube video.


The Fans

Early in the first season the creators of Sherlock imported fictional fans into the show via John Watson's blog. Talk about a unique way to achieve a following. It wasn't long before fact became stranger than fiction. Now, everywhere you look on social media there is an obsession with Sherlock.

A new expression has been coined, the world has become "Sherlocked" (from the episode, A Scandal in Belgravia). People are even recording on video their reaction to the episodes in real time.

It seems that even after a century has passed, a fictional character can be just as fresh and create just as much of an impact. If you have read this far, then probably, you are, as I am, totally and utterly Sherlocked.


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"Entertaining blend of Holmesiana and modern-day neuroscience." (The New York Times)

The Problem with Moriarty (Season 3 Spoiler)

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Updated: 10/30/2015, Bruce-Bowden
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Bruce-Bowden on 05/14/2014

That's fine Jo.

JoHarrington on 05/14/2014

I've got a Sherlock article on my list of Things To Write, but you did cover the ground here. I was going to do about the cast real world relationships. I might still do it eventually, but link your article in, if you don't mind.

Bruce-Bowden on 05/14/2014

I really appreciate your dropping by, Jo. You must be the busiest person on Wizzley. I'm glad you enjoyed the article, and thanks for the kind comments.

JoHarrington on 05/13/2014

I thought I'd read everything, considered every angle and knew every facet. You've just proved me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed this, thanks! It's taken me this long to get here, as I was exploring all of the follow on YouTube clips, after watching the ones that you added. Brilliant show!

Bruce-Bowden on 05/12/2014

Thanks for the feedback. I know that Sherlock isn't everybody's cup of tea. I guess I am captivated by the dialogue, the humor, the acting and the fact that I can't guess what is going to happen next.

The episode that impressed me the most was The Reichenbach Fall. I have never seen the idea explored before where a man's reputation is so meticulously picked apart to the point where even we the audience are not sure if Sherlock is genuine or a fake.

I would encourage you to give it another go with season two, and thanks again.

CSMcClellan on 05/12/2014

Interesting, well-written article, but it didn't change my mind about the series. I watched the first season on DVD and found it both boring and superficial, and too frenetic. Two things you mention are part of what's wrong with it, from my point of view. First, the seasonal arc, because when a series boils down to a formula, that's when it loses my interest. Most viewers want novelty surrounded by predictability, which is what tv is primarily all about.

Second, words flashing on the screeen -- stolen from I don't know how many places, including A Beautiful Mind and the vampire movie with Night in the title (sorry for my bad memory). Every time I run into that feature, I have to work to ignore it because it’s so distracting.

I admired Cumberbatch’s acting long before most Americans had even heard his name, so learning that he was committed to this flashy lightweight series and probably wouldn’t have the time for movies was disappointing.

Maybe if I were already a Holmes fan, I might have been enticed into it. But even then I don’t think so.

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