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Have I mentioned how much I don't like Sherlock?

On TV shows that want you to think you're smart just for watching them


Emily VanDerWerff

Aug 24 2020

8 min read


I generally like TV shows. It’s a dirty little secret for somebody who spent many years primarily defining herself as “a TV critic.” I tried to find the good in everything I watched, and if a show was critically acclaimed, I was generally happy to hop on board the bandwagon. My favorite thing to do was find a show I loved and write about it endlessly, a phenomenon I still take part in from time to time.

But every so often, a TV show that was generally acclaimed would come along and irritate the hell out of me. At first, I would try to like it, playing along with the acclaim. Then, I would shrug my shoulders and say it wasn’t for me. But at some point, a tipping point would arrive, and I would get absolutely unable to even think about that show without ranting about it.

My enemies. (Credit: PBS)

Currently, the show that occupies this slot for me is Black Mirror, but at least there was a time when I thought that series was genuinely one of the best on TV (before it got Netflix-ified). But there is perhaps no series that most exemplified this trend for me better than the BBC and PBS’s spin on Sherlock, which made Benedict Cumberbatch a star, reintroduced Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories to a whole new generation, and so irritated me that I have basically abandoned all Sherlock Holmes-related media. And there’s a lot of Sherlock Holmes related media.

When I look at what the shows that bug me most have in common, I would boil down their core essence to this: They are constantly congratulating you for watching them. They are always explaining how smart you are for riding along for the twists and turns. And they never find a story turn they can’t make out to be the most! Important! One! Yet!

Sherlock hit all of these, then accelerated past the point of no return by creating a situation where it was assuring you of your smartness by never once explaining anything that was happening. This would normally be just fine — letting the audience fill in the blanks themselves is good! — but in a puzzlebox show, it only created further irritation.

I don’t think it’s particularly controversial for me to say I didn’t like Sherlock now — the internet has pretty thoroughly turned on the series. But in the days when I was insisting the emperor had no clothes (around the start of season three), I felt very lonely indeed, even as I greenlit more and more coverage critical of the show on The A.V. Club, so the people would see the truth.

What Sherlock possesses that bothers me so much is the same thing as a comedy series like Family Guy or a movie like Man of Steel, which is to way it has a quality of audience flattery. You’re the only person smart enough, or clever enough, or clear-eyed enough to get it. And because you are, here’s a story designed to endlessly praise you for challenging yourself, even as it spoon feeds you all of the things it wants to say. (See also: Most of the work of Aaron Sorkin.)

We all have audience flattering works that we enjoy — I guess I could argue that Community is one for me, but the flattering qualities of that show are actively in conflict with its darker, spikier moments. But too much flattery and you end up with a story that offers you nothing challenging or new. Instead, you find yourself, again and again, being told exactly what you want and given exactly what you want.

The thing is — audiences often want this. One of those storytelling rules I took to heart early on was Joss Whedon’s (I know, I know) dictum to give the audience what it needs, not what it wants. But it’s so much easier to just give an audience something that floats right down the middle of the plate, ready for them to swing on and knock it out of the park. And there’s often value in doing this well. A film like Avengers: Endgame will never be my favorite, but it’s notable for the way in which it delivers payoff after payoff in a satisfying fashion (at least until you start to think about it).

A close cousin of audience flattery is fan service, another storytelling sin that Sherlock tumbled into over and over again. A little bit of fan service is inevitable in any story — if you’re forever withholding from your audience what it wants, you’re kind of cruel. But when your series becomes consumed by feeding a fandom winks and teases aimed at their own pet theories and ideas, it quickly becomes irksome. (On Sherlock, this took the form of constant smirking about the idea that Holmes and Watson might sleep together.)

Giving an audience what it “needs” often involves pushing that audience to a place that makes them uncomfortable, and it can be hard to keep them on board with you as you do just that. But that lack of comfort is often what we need out of great art. We need to be challenged. We need to be pushed. Art is the ideal place for us to be pushed, because it’s a safe zone. We’re not going to actually be in danger from any of the ideas presented to us. But we’ll sure think about them.

I worry sometimes that we are in a spiral of stories that do exactly what audiences expect them to, one we can’t escape. For a long time, I believed that audiences could only take so much of being given exactly what they want and being told how good they were for wanting it. But the deeper we get into the 21st century, the more the art I love seems dominated by stories that are simply about how much the audience wants them to exist. There’s nothing wrong with that in moderation. But we increasingly lack moderation.

Programming note: Since the unfortunate events of July, I have been struggling to write, which is why this newsletter has been more sporadic of late. I’m hoping to get back on the horse by just writing about TV and movies, topics I adore, particularly weirdo outliers that I probably wouldn’t get to write about at Vox. But God knows that next week, I’ll be writing about, like, my favorite cathedrals or something. Thanks for your patience.

Read me: Katelyn Burns’s expose of a horrible surgeon specializing in gender affirming surgeries for trans women is a must-read about how poorly monitored the trans surgery industrial complex is. Be forewarned — there’s some horrifying stuff in this article!

Many patients who go to Dr. Rumer for bottom surgery are happy with their results. But the people who are not satisfied with their surgeries, at the hands of Dr. Rumer or others, have found it difficult to have their complaints meaningfully addressed. In the highly politicized world of gender-affirming surgery, answers about standard measures of care can be hard to find. Advocates describe a patchwork of surgical practices and “transgender centers for excellence” overseen by local hospitals and state medical boards. Offices can vary widely when it comes to patient-to-doctor ratios and what kind of specialized training a surgeon receives.

When problems occur, speaking out about such a private issue can be difficult—Carlie requested a pseudonym, concerned about harassment and being identified publicly with such an intimate issue in the press. And speaking out after a traumatic experience, in a moment when so few are able to access care, can either be weaponized by anti-trans activists or interpreted by advocates as a step back.

Watch me: I really enjoyed this Jack Saint YouTube essay on the collapse of Bon Appetit. I bought into the story floating around Bon Appetit a little too much, but Saint captures my own journey with thinking about the downfall of the magazine and its YouTube channel.

And another thing… My good pals over at Long Story Short Productions are crowdfunding their new series, Unseen. They blew by their original goal but have set some exciting stretch goals. I, for one, think it would be great if this project got to a cool $40,000, for no real reason. Check it out!

This week’s reading music: “I Know the End” by Phoebe Bridgers

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox

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