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Dark Vocation

By April 21, 2017 4 Comments

Scott Culpepper started a Sherlock thread here on the Twelve earlier this month, and I’m happy to continue that thread here. Future posts on the Sherlock phenomenon are welcome!

After months of watching a few episodes a week on Hulu, I’m finally caught up with the CBS television series Elementary, whose broadcast schedule is now reaching the end of Season 5. While I wait around for the next episode, airing Sunday night, I’ll try to explain why I’ve become a little obsessed with a show about obsession.

I did not read the Sherlock Holmes mysteries by Arthur Conan Doyle until my late 30s, when the whole family listened to them as audio books while driving across the country. Finally I understood what all the fuss was about. As the miles passed and we powered through mystery after mystery, even our eleven- and nine-year-old started to enjoy the fun of piecing together each mystery’s puzzle. We also enjoyed the fussy music of Conan Doyle’s Victorian/Edwardian prose and Sherlock’s fastidious insistence on detail and logic. We still use the snippy line “You see, but you do not observe” when we want to scold each other for missing something in plain sight.

Sherlock himself won our amusement but not our affection. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock is pompous and condescending. Poor Watson, far outclassed, trots along behind him like an adoring puppy, more of a fanboy and sounding board than a partner. So for us, the delight in these stories was not so much in the characters as in the language and the slow reveal of each case’s solution.

Of course, even before Conan Doyle was finished writing about Sherlock, adaptations of the character and premise proliferated. Most notable among recent iterations is the BBC/WGBH television series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. Along with everyone else, I loved this show’s slick production values, wry humor, and fascination with the darker recesses of human personality. At least, I loved it for the first three seasons (or “series” as the Brits say). The fourth series of three episodes, which aired this part January, felt strained to me, tossing plot bombs (involving actual bombs, come to think of it) just for the shock value.

Why would they start relying on plot bombs, when one of the strengths of this show was (note past tense) its character study? This Sherlock, like the original, is brilliant and arrogant, a “high-functioning sociopath” as he describes himself. But the show invites us to understand him a little, to see inside his frenetic mind—with nifty text graphics zinging across the screen at key moments, representing his lightning-fast perceptions and calculations. It seemed for a while that we were gaining a sense of what drives him: that voraciously observant mind for which boredom is the darkest terror—a terror that must be kept at bay, at all costs.

Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is obnoxious and fascinating, though there’s still not much to love about him. We only love him because Watson does, despite everything, and we can’t help but love Martin Freeman’s affable, wounded, perpetually startled Watson. This Watson is smart, decent, tolerant, and brave, as Sherlock himself awkwardly professes at Watson’s wedding—though only after he’s thoroughly insulted all the bridesmaids.

In any case, I think I might be done with this show. Probably. Maybe.

Why bother with it, when Elementary is so much better? Some early critics sniffed at this prime-time network offering as clearly inferior to Sherlock. But I think they’re wrong. Sure, this Elementary is a high-carb police procedural, but I would argue that it’s also the best Sherlock/Watson character study yet.

Producer/writer Robert Doherty places Sherlock in New York and gives him—wait for it—Lucy Liu as Joan Watson. Yes, a woman. And no, there is no romance between them, and never will be. Get over it. Thank you. Now the truly interesting character dynamics can begin.

Here are some reasons to love this Sherlock, played by Jonny Lee Miller, and the interplay between him and Liu’s splendid Watson.

Sherlock is damaged and he knows it.
The various Sherlocks have always flirted with drug addictions, but Doherty runs right at it. The show’s timeline begins with Sherlock in recovery from heroin addiction. He crashed hard in London, he’s just out of rehab, and he lands in New York for a fresh start—with Joan Watson hired to be his “sober companion” and keep an eye on him. The difficulty of staying sober, and Sherlock’s determination to do so, provides an ongoing reason for Sherlock to face his own weaknesses. To portray this, Miller gives Sherlock a kind of hungry physicality—gaunt yet tough as gristle, awkward yet poised. It helps that Miller is a serious long-distance runner.

He’s vulnerable and increasingly self-aware—thanks to Watson.
This is a new one for Sherlock, and it’s the beauty at the heart of his relationship with this Watson. Watson is damaged too, for reasons I won’t reveal here, but she is wiser and more grounded than Sherlock and he honors that. She may not share his crazy acuity, but she’s a skilled detective in her own right (once he trains her)—no puppy dog. They are true partners in “the work,” and when she calls him out for his obnoxiousness, he takes it, and tries to do a little better next time. Watson basically teaches Sherlock how to be in a human relationship, and unlike previous Sherlocks, this one slowly concedes that following a life philosophy other than “everyone must serve my genius” might actually be a wiser way to live.

His mental restlessness and sensory acuity.
Yep, that’s still here, and the show has constant fun with it. He’s studied all brands of cigarettes and cigars and can name-that-brand by smell at a hundred paces. He’s an expert in antique motorcycles. He practices singlestick (a traditional Sherlock art). He frequently processes evidence by watching seven screens at once. He speaks Mandarin, Russian, French, and Farsi (at least), and practices lock-picking in his spare time. That is, when he’s not looking up cold cases to stave off boredom. Watson admires all this, but does not bow down to it.

His sheer weirdness, and Joan’s amused tolerance.
The show has formulaic fun just about every episode: Joan returns to the brownstone they share (long story, and NO, there is no romance), to find Sherlock engaged in some weird activity, all in the name of clearing his mind or getting into the mindset of a suspect. He’s hanging upside down, he’s blasting metal music, he’s doing math in neon markers under ultraviolet lights, he’s beekeeping (another traditional Sherlock pastime), he’s whacking a fake-blood-filled coconut to run splatter tests on a recreated crime scene. Joan shrugs, makes a snarky comment, and gets back to work.

His moralism.
He may engage in contractual sex from time to time in order to relieve tension, but he spares no vitriol for a man who imprisoned women in his apartment, or a child kidnapper, or a torturer. In one series of episodes, he agonizes over a brilliant but “neuroatypical” young woman—because they like each other, but he does not want to hurt or insult her. He handles their almost-relationship with great tenderness (thanks partly to Joan’s coaching).

His sense of vocation.
I’ve watched this motif with special attention as the writers have developed it, and I think it’s the aspect of this Sherlock I like the most. In later seasons, Sherlock says more obvious things like “Detective work is not just what I do, it’s who I am.” But one scene from the middle of the series (3.18, “The View from Olympus”) captures best what drives this Sherlock.

He’s explaining to an associate why he will not, in fact, agree to impregnate her (yeah, long story, again). She explains how much she admires him, but he tells her she is mistaken to do so.

“The things that I do… you think that I do them because I’m a good person. I do them because it would hurt too much not to.”

“Because you’re a good person.”

“No, it hurts, Agatha…. All this. Everything I see, everything I hear, touch, smell. The conclusions that I’m able to draw. The things that are revealed to me. The ugliness. My work focuses me. It helps. You say that I’m using my gifts. I say I’m just treating them.”

Just treating them. I wonder if that is a better definition of vocation than anything I’ve ever heard. Vocation is what you do because it would hurt not to. Isn’t it true that gifts always come bearing pain? Using them—even to help people—may well bring pain. But we endure that pain because not using them would be worse. It’s not really altruism. It’s an obsession, barely managed.

Fascination with that kind of desperate giftedness keeps me coming back to this Sherlock, driven into his dark vocation. The ominous side of this, of course, is that criminals are driven, too–driven by anger, greed, fear. They use their gifts for destruction. So there’s always that dark edge, and by working murder cases, Sherlock daily encounters the darkest shadows of the human spirit. But as he says, the work focuses him, keeps him sober. It would hurt not to.

There’s a lot more to love about this show. I could go on about Lucy Liu, for example. And I could cite all the wonderful, silly aspects of police procedurals. I mean, how many super-clever murderers are there in New York City anyway, all with elaborately layered schemes and multiple motives? How many times can Sherlock and Watson sit down with a room full of boxes or a table covered with documents and process them all overnight, coming up with just the tantalizing new lead they need? And honestly, does Joan need four or five new outfits per episode, no two ever repeated, not even in five seasons?

Never mind. Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu are the best Sherlock and Watson ever. Let’s hope CBS renews for Season 6.


Debra Rienstra

I am a writer and literature professor, teaching literature and creative writing at Calvin University, where I have been on the faculty since 1996. Born and bred in the Reformed tradition, I’ve been unable to resist writing four books about theological topics: beware the writer doing theology without a license. My most recent book is Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth (Fortress, 2022). Besides the books, I’ve written well over two hundred essays for the RJ blog as well as numerous articles, poems, and reviews in popular and scholarly contexts. I have a B.A. from the University of Michigan (Go Blue!) and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers. I am married to Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, and together we have three grown children. Besides reading and writing, I love classical music, science fiction, fussing in the yard, hiking, and teaching myself useful skills like plant identification and—maybe someday—drywall repair.


  • Michael Kugler says:

    Thank you. This is one of the most careful, thoughtful analyses of a good prime-time show I’ve read. I am a big fan of Miller’s movie work and he and Liu engage and move me in their acting.

  • Michael Kugler says:

    Sorry, but I forgot; Liu is (alongside Eva Green in Penny Dreadful) the best dressed woman actor. Her shoes are not to be missed.

    • Debra Rienstra says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Michael. And I totally agree about the shoes! I’m not a fan of Watson’s necktie stage, but she rocks some pretty awesome foot fashion.

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Wow, Thanks, even if one doesn’t watch it. “It would hurt not to.” Small note: The roles are reversed, if not as strong, in the Danish/Swedish “The Bridge”.

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