Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sherlock: The BBC Brings Us Holmes Again

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 20, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the new Holmes and Watson

Every once in a while, a television series comes along and surprises you. Sometimes it’s because a show is so stunningly original that no precedent could have prepared you for it (e.g. HBO’s Carnivale and FOX’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But other times, it’s because a road has been so well-trodden that you go along for the ride, but honestly don’t expect to see anything new there. This past Sunday, BBC One broadcast “A Study in Pink” the first episode of Sherlock, a 21st century re-imagining of the celebrated Arthur Conan Doyle character. Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s The Last Enemy, Creation, The Other Boleyn Girl) stars as the titular Holmes and Watson is played by the more recognizable Martin Freeman (Tim in BBC’s The Office, and Arthur Dent in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The series is the brainchild of Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Jekyll, Coupling) and actor/writer Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who). Moffat has a long history of critical and popular success on the BBC, and it is possible his career has recently reached a new height. In addition to this new series, this past year he took on the helm of BBC’s flagship series, Doctor Who. Given the numerous imaginings of Holmes available on television and film, one might be forgiven for thinking we need a new Sherlock Holmes series as urgently as we need a new brand of vanilla ice cream. Fortunately, this is one instance when that persistent gap between what we believe we need and what we get works decidedly in our favour!

This first run of Sherlock consists of three feature-length episodes, each running 90-minutes. (This coming fall, the series will air in the U.S. on PBS, under the Masterpiece Mystery! banner. It will also air, beginning September 10, on Showcase in Canada.) Set in contemporary London, the show succeeds in bringing familiar and beloved characters firmly into the new century while preserving the magic of the source material. The final result is a show that is funny, suspenseful, and eminently entertaining. Sherlock has something to offer both to those pre-inclined to love it, and those with no familiarity with Sherlock Holmes or the BBC.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Breaking Bad: AMC’s Amorality Tale


As most of the TV-watching universe is waiting patiently for Mad Men to launch its fourth season next Sunday, the third season of AMC’s ‘other show’ has come and gone.

Breaking Bad tells the story of Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who, after an unexpected diagnosis with terminal lung cancer, turns to cooking crystal meth. The show was created by Vince Gilligan (The X-Files, The Lone Gunmen), and, along with Mad Men, it is one of only two original series ever broadcast on AMC. (A third show, the promising conspiracy series, Rubicon, will premiere this August.) After production on its first season was cut short due to the 2007-2008 Writer’s Guild of America strike, Breaking Bad returned a year later with a sophomore season that took an interesting and likeable TV show and elevated it to one of the best shows on television. Everyone I know who’s watched it has become hooked. But that’s the catch: you’ve got to watch it. And there are many reasons why you probably
 haven’t.

First of all, you don’t normally go to AMC for original programming. AMC has only the two shows, both with compressed 13-episode seasons, and they understandably don’t air them at the same time. To watch Breaking Bad, you’ve got to seek it out. And from a distance, it is easy to see why you might not have bothered. It’s a basic cable show about a middle-class school teacher who turns to manufacturing drugs, played by an actor best known for his portrayal of Hal, the father on FOX’s Malcolm in the Middle for 7 seasons. It sounds like a low-estrogen take on Showtime’s Weeds, but without any of the sex appeal. This assessment, while perhaps understandable, could not be more m
isleading.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The Last Airbender: Not The Worst Movie Ever Made

The Last Airbender, which went into wide release this week, is based on "Avatar: The Last Airbender", an animated series produced by the American cable channel Nickelodeon, and broadcast from 2005-2008. Avatar ran for 61 episodes and three seasons, and it was a critical and popular success, resonating with viewers far beyond the network’s very young demographic. I count myself among those adults who, in the summer of 2008, eagerly awaited its concluding episodes. In January 2007, months before the show`s third season had begun, it was announced that M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense, Signs, The Happening) would write, direct, and produce a live-action feature film adaptation. I greeted that announcement with the usual trepidation of one who hears that a beloved novel has been tagged for Hollywood treatment. And so, having been following the film’s production for over 3 years, and putting my creative concerns aside, I walked into the theatre with genuine anticipation. But it wasn’t ‘the new M. Night Shyamalan film’ that I came to see, nor the summer’s next highly-promoted ‘3-D fantasy epic.’ No, I came to see The Last Airbender, the big screen adaptation of a television series that I genuinely love.