The Game is On(line): BBC’s “Sherlock” in the Age of Social Media


Because they’re able to get away with it, British television seasons are usually much shorter than American ones, often resembling a typical cable air schedule. Seasons may contain anywhere from 6 to 12 episodes, with start dates unpredictable. Sherlock tortures its fans with three 90-minute episodes and an undetermined hiatus between seasons. So far we’re averaging at about 2 years.

Sherlock, as the title implies, is another Sherlock Holmes adaptation, this time set in modern-day London. Although it predates the American version Elementary by quite a few months, it remains somewhat obscure to American audiences, lost in the shuffle between Guy Ritchie’s recent cinematic adaptations starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Which brings up a good point. In recent years we’ve seen no less than three mainstream adaptations of the familiar tale. Why is it that nearly 100 years after what would have been his death, modern entertainment seems determined to resurrect him?

The jaded Hollywood answer as to why adaptations are so popular these days is because producers are reluctant to take chances on original material, instead favoring films made from “source material” that audiences are already familiar with and need less convincing to see. I would like to think it has more to do with the struggle to fit our modern experiences into a larger cultural context, and doing so in a way that draws upon familiar archetypes to simultaneously revise and engage with our storytelling history.  But that’s just me.

Regardless, the interest in the Sherlock Holmes stories is likely less philosophical yet more than merely cursory. Sherlock Holmes is an intriguing character because he’s a great thinker. One of our many defining qualities as humans is our profound ability to think, analyze, reason and interpret. To see one of our own complete these tasks on an elite level is fascinating. Sherlock solves crimes that others haven’t a chance of figuring out and he does it with a fluidity and elegance that we all wish we could have. With every modernizing adaptation we see how our methods for thinking and cataloguing information changes as time goes on and technology develops.

BBC’s Sherlock is honest about the role of technology and social media in daily life and daily thought. It recognizes the seamless way that text messages and internet searches integrate into our lives and presents the show accordingly.

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Group texts received during a police press conference. Likely sent by you know who.

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As a result, the stories told in this modern day setting would have been impossible in their original context. In conjunction with reasoning and good old-fashioned deduction, Sherlock Holmes and John Watson rely on mobile synching services and text messaging to solve the latest crime and we’ve been invited along for the ride. Sherlock cleverly uses the visuals on screen to imitate the way that the mind processes, creates and rejects information and conclusions.

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This time around, social media and technology are essential to the creation of the Sherlock Holmes universe in ways never seen before. The series begins within the frame of Dr. John Watson (a PTSD-suffering Afghanistan war veteran) writing a blog to track his recovery, a modern twist to the journal entries that comprised Doyle’s original incarnation.

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Sherlock himself keeps a website discussing the “science of deduction” and provides visitors with his direct cell phone number should questions or discussions arise. As the series continues we see the effect of social media in the making of Sherlock as a cultural icon within the show. A snapshot of Sherlock in a goofy hat (intended to hide his face from paparazzi) generates the iconic image of the Holmsian hero in a deerstalker that we know and love from decades past.

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But despite all of these changes, the show is still freshly, authentically Sherlock Holmes.  Behind all of the texting and googling and syncing is the original spark that made Holmes lore such a popular and integral part of literary culture in the first place — a man adept at using available tools and reasoning in unique and clever ways.

However a word of caution to the viewer. While technology is a friend to Sherlock during his modern adventures, if you attempt to watch while plugged in to any of the various avenues of social media — texting, emailing, or (in my case) blogging — you’ll find that you’ll have a hard time keeping up and are apt to miss something. Sherlock loves technology but almost as if to tease its viewer, presents it in a way that requires more than divided attention in order to follow along. We may be invited along for the ride, but as with everything in film and television, we can look but we can’t touch.

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