You know the holiday season is over when, instead of being torn between The X Factor and Strictly Come Dancing on a Saturday night, you have to choose between The Voice and Splash!. The good news for The Voice is that pint-sized superstar Kylie Minogue has joined its judging panel. In the season opener, competition hopeful Leo Ihenacho (formerly of the band The Streets) picked Kylie to be his mentor, as he used to fantasise about her when he was a boy. The premise of The Voice is that the judges, who have their backs turned to the stage, aren’t influenced by the aspirants’ looks, age or dress. In return, contestants seem to choose as their coach the judge they think is most, well, hot.
Anyway, I’m afraid the amateur-diving platform Splash!, with its head-spinning mixture of Tom Daley, poolside judges, half-known celebrities, half-done half-twists and belly flops, is sunk. I guess it depends on whether the singer Paul Young can manage to resuscitate it this week, because he’s appearing as a contestant, along with Tory MP Penny Mordaunt. (Since this is not The Voice, I feel I can divulge that Mordaunt was once rated sexiest female Parliamentarian.)
On to other things, because — once I’d gotten over the fact the holidays are at an end — I did a bit of pondering and I think that TV might have experienced a watershed last week, no splashy pun intended. Quite simply, I think Sherlock has changed everything. And this point came home to me when I was watching Channel 4’s new American import Hostages (Saturday).
I wasn’t completely won over by the first episode of the third season of Sherlock, or by the second — or even by the third, which I think is the best in this series. I felt the highly lauded third episode had loopholes one overlooked because the pace was so frenetic. Why, for example, did Sherlock actually die for a few moments from Mary’s gunshot if she had calculated on not fatally wounding him? How did Magnussen manage to archive so much information about so many potential blackmail victims in his memory, and isn’t the very idea absurd? How many people are going to come back from the dead — Sherlock and now, it seems, Moriarty — before an audience’s credulity and patience snap?
An important shift has occurred in Sherlock. The programme is no longer about the detective outwitting the criminal, but about the programme outwitting us. Time and again, especially in the third episode, we see timelines being spliced or fast-forwarded, so that we the viewers are left in no doubt we are but putty in scriptwriter Steven Moffat’s hands. Right after a face-off between John and Mary, for example, when John discovers that Mary is an assassin, we are shown a cosy Christmas scene, a few months later. What happened in between? Even the most intrepid sofa sleuths won’t guess, because they can’t.
Then there are the plot twists that come at such a furious, dizzying pace that you can’t help but admire the show and be hooked on it. Sherlock is in love! No, he’s not! Mary is a liar! Mary shoots, but not to kill! Sherlock shoots to kill! Sherlock is leaving the UK! Sherlock is back! Moriarty is back!
Whether or not you think Sherlock is good drama, this twist-every-two-ticks approach changes our expectations of television. It’s like a dopamine hit, the same kind that makes us keep checking Twitter or Instagram or whatever, and after this we can’t go back. I was painfully aware of this while watching Hostages, touted as the next Homeland. In this conspiracy spinner, the American president has to undergo surgery, and his surgeon Dr Ellen Sanders (Toni Collette) has her husband and children taken hostage by a mysterious group that wants her to administer a fatal poison during the op.
Hostages probably won’t be as good as Homeland, but I’m guessing its greatest strength will lie in the fact that it’s a family drama, as well as a political and action thriller. But what struck me most was how old-fashioned the filming techniques seemed, after three weeks of Sherlock. The narrative arc was a conventional one, in other words, quaintly chronological, with few flashbacks or flashforwards. Motifs and metaphors were absent; there wasn’t a mind palace in sight. We have come quite a way if a series produced by cliffhanger king Jerry Bruckheimer seems somewhat plodding, but that’s what I felt. In a way it’s more human and far less tricksy; in another way, it’s just not as addictive. A lot of this, of course, is due to the fact that an American TV season can last up to 24 episodes; Sherlock had to cram everything into a biennial series of three episodes.
But there you go, like it or not. After Sherlock, television may never be the same again.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 18 January 2014Tags: Homeland, Hostages, Sherlock, Splash!, The Voice, The X Factor