After Sherlock, TV will never be the same again

Soon, we will demand that every programme give us a twist every two ticks — just try to sit through the plodding Hostages

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

18 January 2014

9:00 AM

You know the holiday season is over when, instead of being torn between The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night, you have to choose between The Voice and Splash!. The good news for The Voice is that pint-sized superstar Kylie Minogue has joined its judging panel. In the season opener, competition hopeful Leo Ihenacho (formerly of the band The Streets) picked Kylie to be his mentor, as he used to fantasise about her when he was a boy. The premise of The Voice is that the judges, who have their backs turned to the stage, aren’t influenced by the aspirants’ looks, age or dress. In return, contestants seem to choose as their coach the judge they think is most, well, hot.

Anyway, I’m afraid the amateur-diving platform Splash!, with its head-spinning mixture of Tom Daley, poolside judges, half-known celebrities, half-done half-twists and belly flops, is sunk. I guess it depends on whether the singer Paul Young can manage to resuscitate it this week, because he’s appearing as a contestant, along with Tory MP Penny Mordaunt. (Since this is not The Voice, I feel I can divulge that Mordaunt was once rated sexiest female Parliamentarian.)

On to other things, because — once I’d gotten over the fact the holidays are at an end — I did a bit of pondering and I think that TV might have experienced a watershed last week, no splashy pun intended. Quite simply, I think Sherlock has changed everything. And this point came home to me when I was watching Channel 4’s new American import Hostages (Saturday).

I wasn’t completely won over by the first episode of the third season of Sherlock, or by the second — or even by the third, which I think is the best in this series. I felt the highly lauded third episode had loopholes one overlooked because the pace was so frenetic. Why, for example, did Sherlock actually die for a few moments from Mary’s gunshot if she had calculated on not fatally wounding him? How did Magnussen manage to archive so much information about so many potential blackmail victims in his memory, and isn’t the very idea absurd? How many people are going to come back from the dead — Sherlock and now, it seems, Moriarty — before an audience’s credulity and patience snap?

An important shift has occurred in Sherlock. The programme is no longer about the detective outwitting the criminal, but about the programme outwitting us. Time and again, especially in the third episode, we see timelines being spliced or fast-forwarded, so that we the viewers are left in no doubt we are but putty in scriptwriter Steven Moffat’s hands. Right after a face-off between John and Mary, for example, when John discovers that Mary is an assassin, we are shown a cosy Christmas scene, a few months later. What happened in between? Even the most intrepid sofa sleuths won’t guess, because they can’t.

Then there are the plot twists that come at such a furious, dizzying pace that you can’t help but admire the show and be hooked on it. Sherlock is in love! No, he’s not! Mary is a liar! Mary shoots, but not to kill! Sherlock shoots to kill! Sherlock is leaving the UK! Sherlock is back! Moriarty is back!

Hostages-EpisodeToni Collette as Dr Ellen Sanders Photo: Getty

Whether or not you think Sherlock is good drama, this twist-every-two-ticks approach changes our expectations of television. It’s like a dopamine hit, the same kind that makes us keep checking Twitter or Instagram or whatever, and after this we can’t go back. I was painfully aware of this while watching Hostages, touted as the next Homeland. In this conspiracy spinner, the American president has to undergo surgery, and his surgeon Dr Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) has her husband and children taken hostage by a mysterious group that wants her to administer a fatal poison during the op.

Hostages probably won’t be as good as Homeland, but I’m guessing its greatest strength will lie in the fact that it’s a family drama, as well as a political and action thriller. But what struck me most was how old-fashioned the filming techniques seemed, after three weeks of Sherlock. The narrative arc was a conventional one, in other words, quaintly chronological, with few flashbacks or flashforwards. Motifs and metaphors were absent; there wasn’t a mind palace in sight. We have come quite a way if a series produced by cliffhanger king Jerry Bruckheimer seems somewhat plodding, but that’s what I felt. In a way it’s more human and far less tricksy; in another way, it’s just not as addictive. A lot of this, of course, is due to the fact that an American TV season can last up to 24 episodes; Sherlock had to cram everything into a biennial series of three episodes.

But there you go, like it or not. After Sherlock, television may never be the same again.

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Show comments
  • Aisey Mang

    Clearly you haven’t seen Scandal. You must fix this immediately. If you want major revelations in every other scene, Scandal is like crack.

    • Clarissa_Tan

      No, actually I haven’t. I shall get on it pronto! Actually I forgot to add in my piece that — whatever its writers intended it to be — we can’t help but regard Sherlock as a whodunit, something to be solved. So we are both mentally and emotionally invested. It’s a mind trip…

  • ranush ratnasekera

    seriously? those are loop holes? why did sherlock die for a few moments? sherlock didnt die for a few moments.he was conscious but he was dying.he was in his memory palace trying to deduce the best options to save his life.and no matter how much of a perfect shot mary is,it doesnt mean that a bullet from a small distance would not fatally injure someone.there is no magnussen’s photographic memory absurd? no there are actual people with photographic memories.and humans can do anything if they put their mind to it with a bit might as well say sherlocks deduction skills are absurd.just 2 humans that are just many people can come back from the dead? u are going to have to wait for season 4 to find out without speculating .we see timelines being spliced or fast-forwarded? sherlock always did that.remember scandal of your research.and i i disagree about the story.the show slowly and subtly built up to the point where sherlock HAD to shoot magnussen.motfis and metaphors absent? never.magnussen flicking john’s face at the end? maybe you are too bland to spot the subtle brilliance of it all.i normally dont reply to anything but this was article was horrible.

    • limeyobserver

      __magnussen’s photographic memory__

      Also known as ‘superior autobiographical memory,’ a status scientists have designated only to a minuscule handful of people around the world.
      I recall reading an article about American actress, Marilu Henner. She can remember almost every day of her life in vivid detail. And accurately remember a day 10 years ago as clear as yesterday was to you or me.

      By the way, the Magnussen Flick does bring back memories.

    • Adaadat

      Capitals? Space between sentences?

      Anyway, Sherlock was dreadful, but no worse than everything else on British T.V., and, please, stop desperately giving British writers the benefit of the doubt – it doesn’t do them any favours. If you believe the programme didn’t make sense, don’t succumb to anti-intellectualism and praise it, all the same.

      You know, I don’t hate for the sake of it; I really want to watch something British, but what is there? Honestly, what? It is pointless to ignore the presence of American dramas and their intellectual pull, so when will ours demonstrate even the basics of what Americans have taken for granted for years: three-dimensional characters and realistic dialogue, all tightly woven into plots that flow beautifully, even when the writers have taken a flight of fancy, with outre sub-plots. When will our television rival Mad Men, Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Southland, Breaking Bad, House of Cards and the new line-up on Fox. Even the second-tier stuff – the over-rated Game of Thrones – is eminently watchable.

      Having discovered television that treats me as intelligent and when criticism of it is relegated to questioning an ‘out-of-character’ action [you feel like you know the characters], why would I regress to viewing programmes that are unintentionally hilarious? When will broadcasters produce programmes that the channel executives will skip a trip to the theatre to watch?