Sherlock and The X-Files

untitledI’ve seen a couple of episodes of BBC’s great Sherlock series with Benedict Cummerbatch, but now I’ve been watching them all on Netflix. As I watched the pilot, “A Study in Pink,” I realized that this show is built on the same dynamic as The X-Files.

Each show is about a man who already investigates mysteries. The man is a social outcast because of his peculiar interests and obsessive personality.

Each series starts with a new partner teaming up with him. The partner is much physically smaller than the man, and has a much more reserved personality. Clearly, the two main characters are foils.

The partner is a medical doctor.

Throughout the series, each character grows by becoming just a little more like the other.

Their adventures are complicated by powerful behind-the-scenes interests who alternately help and oppose them.

It’s a great foundation for any high-energy mythology. Surprising it isn’t used even more often.

Sherlock Holmes Meets Cthulhu

Sherlock_holmes_vs_cthulhuSo Neil Gaiman, the great author of dark fantasy, apparently wrote a short story about Sherlock Holmes meeting Cthulhu, H.P. Lovecraft’s giant ancient alien monster.

Last week I had a few minutes between classes on different campuses, so I swung by the library. The start of a school year always puts me in the mood for easy genre fiction, and right now I’m hankering for Lovecraft. Browsing the shelves I saw a recent anthology, an homage to the master.

Picked it up, flipped through it, found this one.

It was just as excellent as any Gaiman fan might hope.

I was extra delighted to find my own name in it, in a reference to “Huston, the acid-bath man,” some sort of thoroughly homicidal type, it seems.

It’s available in a few places online, most attractively here.  Highly recommended.

Yes, You Should Judge a Book By Its Cover!

Before I eviscerate this ridiculous bit of old folk wisdom in its metaphorical interpretation, may I please point out how foolish it is in a literal application?  Of course you’re supposed to judge a book by its cover–that’s part of what the cover is for.  It protects the book, helps hold it together…and advertises the contents.  If you pick up a book and the cover pictures a blushing maiden, corset unlacing, in the brawny arms of a topless pirate who leans in towards her for a passionate kiss, it’s a pretty good bet that you’re not holding a physics textbook. 

The same simple method of intuitive observation is true for people.  We might reflexively regurgitate the popular culture’s mantra that you don’t really know anything about anybody until you know them well, and that people are complicated and defy easy classification, but no matter how much Hollywood wants us to see fascinating iconoclasts behind every trendy appearance, the fact is that almost everybody is transparent, predictable, and very cleanly in line with our expectations for how people with certain appearances will act and think.

Take mohawks, for example.  Continue reading

Television Review: The Mentalist

The MentalistI recently read a movie review that pronounced the death of PG-13 comedies starring unusual characters and the rise of the raunchy, R-rated adult comedy. That may be true in theaters, but on the TV screens of America’s homes, the unusual character is stronger than ever.

Think House, think Monk, think Grissom on CSI, or any of a ton of other unique personality-driven shows. Last season, I was impressed by the savant-like quality of the innocently antisocial Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, but now the crown for best new character goes back to a drama.

Patrick Jane is a great character.  Though the advertising for The Mentalist sells him as a latter-day Sherlock Holmes, his powers of observation take a back seat to the sheer audacity of his harmless brashness.  Simon Baker as Jane is instantly likable, but in the way a politician or car salesman is: you know you’re being manipulated by a pro, but they’re just so good at it you don’t care. 

As the season has gone on, however, Jane’s back story has added a compelling depth to the character.  It’s not just Jane’s cheesy megawatt smirk that endears us to him, it’s his apparent struggle to keep up his life in the wake of the tragic murder of his family, and then it’s moments of pure surprise that end up fitting into that frame perfectly that keep us fascinated by this new man in our head. 

In one episode, Jane gives voice to what we had just been led to wonder about him when he looks at his superior and says, bluntly but totally without malice, that when he finds his family’s killer he’s going to do to him what the killer did to them.  It would have been chilling had it not sounded so reasonable, put so easily out in the light like that.  Jane makes revenge seem not only reasonable, but nice.

However, that same episode revealed a possible weakness of the show.  The camera likes to do our work for us.  When Jane is looking around for details inside the trailer of a mentally challenged man who might be involved in a murder, we zoom in on a copy of Moby Dick hidden on a closet shelf.  Hmmm.  That’s not right, we think.  What’s a mentally retarded man doing with Moby Dick?  Of course, the suspect is faking it, but we already knew that–isn’t that the only logical explanation for the book?

Also in that December episode, another suspect gets locked in a barn and appears to be threatened by a shadowy figure who might be a murder victim who survived.  The figure’s approach even closes an act and leads to a commercial break.  Naturally, we know that the figure is actually Jane in disguise, tricking the suspect into a confession, if only because it doesn’t make narrative sense to have such a long, key scene late in an episode leave out the main character. 

Hopefully such stumbles won’t become par for the course in what is becoming such an intriguing story.  Last night’s episode made me want to know more about the “Red John” story arc, and it ended on a solidly Holmesian note: a brief, taunting phone call is made to Jane from an unknown location, which he immediately figures out is a hotel in Tijuana.  His clues–the noise in the background (indicating the thin walls of a hotel) and the villain’s access to a phone, among others, are undeniably clever.  (I’d add that the bad guy also ended his call with “Vaya con Dios,” and since he has no apparent Hispanic background himself, it makes sense to think that he was calling from a location where he was surrounded by a Spanish influence.  But that’s neither here nor there.)

Such quick bits of observational derring-do, and the even more present employment of little psychological tricks to get people to say and do what he wants, make Jane a detective to keep our eyes on, and a character to keep our minds sharp. 

And maybe this will be just the thing we need to bring vests back in style.