Sherlock, shark-jumping, and the casual viewer

Feature Andrew Blair 7 Jan 2014 - 07:00

Alienating viewers, water-skiing over sea predators... Andrew sifts through some of the criticism aimed at Sherlock's third series

Sherlock has a hefty internet presence (two percent of which is people telling you Elementary is  better whilst the other ninety eight percent are sharing pictures of animals dressed as the central characters). It has now had the zeitgeist imprisoned in a special cage for three years, occasionally letting it out to dance. If you laid out all the .gifs the show has inspired from end to end you would have missed the point of .gifs.

The show is therefore difficult to avoid. Here, there, articles everywhere. Thus, it is not a huge surprise to find it being used as link-bait, using the tenuous excuse of some people disliking it on Twitter (because that's rare). After The Sign of Three, The Guardian asked if Sherlock has 'jumped the shark?'. It was their most viewed TV & Radio article at the time of writing.

'Jump the Shark' is an overused, worn-out term that has become a synonym for 'Some people don't like it anymore', but it is more emotive than asking a simple question. It's also disconcerting that the options beneath the question imply aggression and vitriol on behalf of the viewer.

If you think that Sherlock has lost its way, then you can vote for 'Yes – Steven Moffat hasn't got a clue', as if he's the only show-runner and had more than a partial writing credit on one of the two episodes so far. However, Moffat is a convenient focal point, especially as there are already people blogging about their dislike of his writing in fandom (Not so much Mark Gatiss and Steve Thompson, neither of whom has show-run Doctor Who yet). So far, so hindering.

The other option is to say 'No – it's a mystery that people didn't like it'. It's so obvious it was great, that everyone who disagrees must be wrong. It's so cool when everyone adopts that position. We're not far off just saying 'If you didn't get it you must be thick', which is another comment that does the rounds in the wake of an episode of Whatever It Is We're Arguing About Now.

Fandom, as ever, is full of passion, attachment and shades of grey - but drawing battle lines is easier than stirring enthusiasm, and so everything gets to be a conflict. Something can't simply be good on its own merits, it has to be better than something else. 

In this case, something can't simply have been a bad episode, it must be the show entering terminal decline because some People on the Internet said so, even though said people are a tiny, tiny fraction of the overall viewing public.

It's true that series three has been different to the previous two, and that some people have expressed disappointment with this. You can see why they might. So far it has not adhered to the previous formula which was ultimately similar in style to many detective dramas – a standalone mystery to solve.  What made it distinctive for many viewers were the characters, so instead of sticking with this pattern The Empty Hearse was a fun - if slight - romp attempting to resolve loose ends. The Sign of Three spent its time investing in the characters - developing Sherlock, refining everyone else - and stealthing in a plot at the very end.

It's laudable to attempt something different, even if the end result isn't successful. You might disagree, but then if humanity hadn't tried new things we might still be living in non-bat-themed caves (The worst kind of caves). Stories need new tweaks and tropes, otherwise we may as well just  watch 'Arrival of a Train' on loop for the rest of our lives.

The changes in Sherlock come from an assumption by the writers that the fans know these incarnations of the characters, a have stuck with them through two series and a painfully long break, so why not reward the faithful with a little bit more characterisation? This isn't great news if you were watching for the mysteries, but it's brilliant if you want to see Drunk Sherlock. When Cumberbatch pirouetted last night, the cynical part of my brain said 'They only did that for Tumblr', and the 'Doug from Up' part of my brain replied 'Well, that was nice of them'.

In reaching out to fandom, series three has demolished the fourth wall. Now, some people like the fourth wall.  They regard it as a shield against what they perceive as the smugly clever, protection against the in-jokes and geeky references appeal to some and irk others. "By smashing this layer of protection with special hammers", say some critics (we're paraphrasing here) "Sherlock is in danger of alienating the casual viewer."

The position of the casual viewer is interesting with regards television as a whole. Sherlock is a serial with recurring characters and themes to explore, it doesn't just press the reboot button at the end of each episode. It's based on famous stories and characters who have been around in various interpretations since 1887 across movies, television and radio. The books  are still taught in English classes and bought in electronic and paper form across the English speaking world. There is room to assume, therefore, that a casual viewer might have a passing familiarity with the characters, and so not offer them a hopping-on point three series in.

This annoys people – sometimes you just want to turn your brain off, and not watch something that involved - but realistically a TV show doesn't have to please everybody. Sherlock might seem, by virtue of its requiring investment and familiarity, to be putting off casual viewers, but overnight viewing figures for The Sign of Three are up on the previous series' second episodes. This series seems to be bringing in more people than it is shutting out. It won't be much of a relief to anyone who preferred the previous format, but currently the programme-makers are being vindicated.

Which begs another question: what if Sherlock “jumps the shark”, and the audience keeps growing? Then it would make sense to keep going down that route, even if it's being decried as cliquey. After all if the clique is nine million strong, they can probably get away with it without needing casual viewers. With On Demand services enabling broadcasters to simulate boxsets and allow longer form storytelling, UK TV makers are embracing this method of storytelling. It'll be interesting to see how His Last Vow plays out, whether it makes concessions to the casual viewer, and how popular it is as a result.

Maybe people like jumping the shark after all.

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