Geek 501 – Sherlock

With our Geek 501 posts, we try to give you a primer or introduction on a topic. For today, it’s BBC’s smash hit, Sherlock. Part of a trend of retelling the Sherlock Holmes stories these days, including the two films with Robert Downey Jr., and the new TV show Elementary. There have been plenty of Sherlock Holmes remakes and stories ever since the books came out… For instance, to reference my post yesterday, there’s Sherlock Holmes adventures in Star Trek: The Next Generation.

With so many retellings of these stories, what makes Sherlock so special? There are all sorts of reasons it might be. The rising star that is Benedict Cumberbatch. The success of bringing the story into the modern age. Steven Moffat. Martin Freeman as the English Everyman. However, I have a different argument.

Rather than tell you every odd and end of the show, I’m going to explore the question that I think answers the success of the show – what do you call Sherlock? If you’re looking for an intro to the show, try this introduction by the folks over at For Human Peoples:

Sherlock: What Do You Call It?

I think the success of Sherlock has to do with its format. Because what do you call it? Each season has been a series of three 90-minute episodes. So what do you call that? Let’s consider a few alternatives.

A TV Show

Okay, the obvious one, I suppose: is it a normal season of television? Here in the States, certainly not. While the networks have started playing with ideas of 13-episode seasons, with shows like Sleepy Hollow and Almost Human, that’s nowhere near 3 episodes. And indeed, our shows end up far closer to 20+ episodes.

Even shows like Game of Thrones which are seeing such success from avoiding filler episodes and content are much longer, with Game of Thrones clocking in at 10 episodes a season. Combine that with the success of the mini-season that was Under the Dome, and we see a trend that way in American Television. However, could we perhaps actually say that these shows are tending towards Sherlock, rather than the other way around?

A British Series

Of course, calling them “seasons” is inaccurate – this is a British show, and these are Series. Yet even so, your typical British series, while running short, does not run this short. While the 13 episode Doctor Who series are considered long, and even the 8 episodes of Broadchurch were pushing it… 6 episodes is still fairly standard.

However, these are still roughly hour-long sorts of episodes; each episode of Sherlock is an hour-and-a-half. So again, it might be simple to say that it is two episodes in one, and therefore a six-episode season in three… But that makes it three sets of two-parters. Because each episode tells a singular story.

And indeed, in doing so, it does not hit a middle-climax, like you would in a two-parter. Cliffhangers change the pace of the storytelling, and Sherlock does not suffer from this. It is allowed to hit its stride each episode when it needs to.


With the longer format, and the overall four-and-a-half-hours for each series, it’s tempting to instead call each series a mini-series. After all, that’s the length of something like, say, the Dune mini-series. And that was also broken into three parts, and based on written source material.

However, something that a mini-series usually lacks is the episodic nature of Sherlock. Dune moved through three acts in the three parts of the mini-series, with cliffhangers between. Because it was all part of telling a single story, from start to finish. And, though there was a second mini-series – Children of Dune – this was based on a couple of books, and still told the story through.

Sherlock, while it has a few moments that carry from one episode to another – mainly in terms of characters like Moriarty – it lacks an overarching story. And the cliffhangers happen not between episodes, but between series – like you would with a show, and not a mini-series.

A Movie?

So if it does not fit existing models for a TV show – in America or Britain – and does not fit as a mini-series, do we need to look outside the realm of television shows? After all, 90 minutes is the lower end on the length of a movie – used to be more like an average time – and so there are some parallels.

However, 9 movies of anything – as there are now 9 episodes of Sherlock – would be very ambitious. Harry Potter was only 8, remember, although also longer each, to be sure. The Marvel Studios films have passed 9, but with different characters and plots between them. There are a dozen or so Star Trek films, over decades. Far more of James Bond, over a similar length of time, but without a TV Show.

I say all of this to say, 9 movies takes a lot of time, and keeping the cast together, even, for these, is difficult. Much less keeping interest, keeping new plots going. These are all aspects we expect from Television, not from Movies.

Even if we combine the two, and call Sherlock a made-for-TV-movie, misses the fact that still, the episodic nature, the series-aspect, are unlike other made-for-TV-movies.

So What Do You Call It?

I don’t know that there is a good term for what Sherlock is. It does not follow the conventions of other shows, of the ways other people are presenting their stories and plots. However, I think this is the main reason why it has such appeal.

My thought is, they chose the right length and series setup to tell the stories they wanted to tell. They cut out the unnecessary, they left the fans wanting more, and they told whole, complex mysteries, with character development to boot.

Sherlock stands out among the other thing on the air, catches your attention. It’s short enough you can get through a whole series in one sitting, but each story is long enough that it stands on its own – you remember them each individually. They stand alone.

Beyond this – if you really haven’t watched this show – I recommend it. It somehow combines the old and new, cleverness and the everyday, and have made Sherlock a new sort of character again. But to do that sort of thing well, they had to tell the story in its own sort of way, and it worked.

And if you have watched the show, what do you think? Is there a more compelling reason for its success? Or maybe to ask the question another way: what’s your favorite part of Sherlock? Let us know in the comments below!

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