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Manners Should Be Elementary, My Dear Sherlock Holmes

The new BBC series Sherlock is terrific fun, but its acedically bored main character is so ill-mannered that he bears little resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective. This devolution reveals more about our own era than it does about Sherlock Holmes.

Before I criticize the characterization let me just say that many other aspects of this series' updating have been delightful. The pacing is brisk, the reliance on technology fascinating (Watson's chronicle, for example, has been moved to a blog, and Sherlock is never without his mobile phone). And I was of course relieved that A Study in Pink, the series opener based on Conan Doyle's inaugural novel A Study in Scarlet, retained all the plot twists of the original without the anti-Mormon propaganda.


In Conan Doyle's stories, Sherlock Holmes had many flaws: he was driven, untidy, and logical to a fault. He was arrogant at times, yes, and somewhat vain. He may have suffered from bipolar tendencies, was a little too loose with verboten substances, and seemed to be secretly terrified of women.

But he was not cruel. He was rarely even rude.

The BBC's contemporary Sherlock is entirely unfazed when his landlady has been beaten and tied up. He rescues her but expresses no concern about her welfare and disagrees with Watson about her needing a rest. This Sherlock openly ridicules a woman at his own Christmas party, noticing by the tiniest detail of her clothing and demeanor that she is aiming to impress some man but not realizing that he's the one who has sparked her interest. And he seems to barely tolerate Watson's presence.

This Sherlock is constantly bored and repeatedly tells people that they, and their stories, are boring. He craves stimulation, even if that means that someone is about to get murdered. Anything so he can enjoy the intellectual thrill of the chase.

The BBC's Sherlock Holmes has abandoned hero status and become an antihero, that morally ambiguous character that has risen to TV prominence in recent years (Jack Bauer, Dexter, Dr. House, Spike, etc.). The most disturbing thing about this is that he has everything in common with his archnemesis, Moriarty. Moriarty in this series is wildly unpredictable and downright psychotic, whereas in the books Moriarty's complexity lay in his unfailing calm.

Call me old-fashioned, but it would be marvelous to see a bit of Holmes's humanity return to 221B Baker Street.


Tags: 221b baker street, bbc sherlock series, benjamin cumberbatch, dexter, dr. gregory house, dr. watson, jana riess, martin freeman, pbs masterpiece mystery, professor moriarty, sherlock holmes, spike


  1. I don’t see the BBC’s Sherlock as rude. Instead, I believe they’ve changed his mental diagnosis from one of bipolar to one residing somewhere along the autism spectrum. To me, it makes more sense in terms of understanding Sherlock’s focus and underlying character, his obsession with the rational. It also creates a more sympathetic portrayal of Watson as he tries to alleviate some of the social awkwardness created by Holmes.

    Yes, Sherlock is sometimes more rude than is appropriate, but you’ll see after the season finale episode that his treatment of the mortician in the first episode is incorporated into an overall plot element/character development. Does it absolve him of his behavior? Not completely.

  2. Jealous that you have already seen the finale. (As you can see, even though I’m critical of the series, I can’t stop watching.) But if we’re diagnosing characters, I think the writers have given him “comorbidity”—in this case, both extreme Aperger’s AND bipolar disorder.

    For me the biggest problem is the lack of empathy Sherlock demonstrates where murder is concerned. In the opening episode of Season 1 he is crowing with glee at the thought that a serial killer is on the loose, because that will mean more murder. Yippee! This is not consistent with the Holmes I remember, who retained his humanity even while enjoying the process of deduction.

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