If you haven’t heard of the BBC’s Sherlock as of the date of this post, get off your couch where you’ve been watching Law and Order: SVU marathons for the last three months. There’s a new detective in town – and judging the walloping publicity campaign for the much-anticipated CBS show Elementary, he’s here to stay.
Sherlock, co-created by Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, follows the modern-day adventures of one Sherlock Holmes and his put-upon assistant, Dr. John Watson.
The show exists in a kind of sexy hyper-reality where the audience is privy to text messages, blog entries, and the thought processes of the characters through the layering of text and images over the screen images. It’s a little bit like Google Glasses for television (remember Google Glasses?).
If you’re anything like me (and I always assume that you’re a least a little bit like me), you spend most of your day taking in at least two sources of visual information: you’re walking to the subway and you’re catching up on Deadline.com. You’re watching television and you’re catching up on Deadline.com. You’re hanging out with friends and…well, you get the idea (don’t hate. I’m very informed).
Sherlock masterfully capitalizes on our multi-multi-multi-tasking brains and manages to essentially compress a great deal of information into a few seconds by making the delivery of that information exciting and making the audience feel, like Sherlock, hyper-smart.
This is intelligent television-making we should all pay attention to and here’s why.
This may be the trend to watch. As viewer attention spans change and become less focused, there are two ways to start working more effectively: a) fit as much story as possible into a smaller amount of time, or b) create a world for the show where information is multilayered and rapid, never allowing your audience downtime to say, check their cellphones.
Sherlock, with episodes that are essentially mini-movies, has the luxury of length, but Moffatt and Gatiss, smart television folk that they are, have created a world where suspense and character are created on a number of levels simultaneously (there’s a great chase scene in the first episode, A Study in Pink, that really shows this off).
Watching an episode feels like being a in a high-speed amusement park ride, where we are occasionally intentionally stopped for a few moments before being taken around the next curve. The iron-handed control of how the audience experiences each episode’s narrative is fascinating.
It will be interesting to see what direction Elementary goes in, whether CBS embraces this stylistic choice, and what audience response will be. While I am a huge fan of Sherlock Holmes (the books), I doubt very much that Sherlock’s success is all due to the story of the detective – and has quite a bit to do with how this re-telling is packaged.