Picture credit: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images
Artillery Row

The emptiness of hype

A cultural legacy depends on far more than passing enthusiasm

A former colleague used to ask, every time I saw her, whether I had watched Breaking Bad yet. This was back in the early part of the last decade, when it was still airing on its original run. It took me years to get round to watching the show, partly because of my discomfort with the post-Sopranos vogue for anti-heroes, but I finally did so in 2022, and must confess that the buzz was justified. The misadventures of Walter White are truly Shakespearean. Breaking Bad — along with its even better prequel Better Call Saul — confirmed that television drama was a legitimate art form in its own right, which could combine superb longform storytelling with visual innovation, music, and sound design in a unique way.  

Sherlock was just not that good; certainly not as good as it thought it was

All that said, it is wise to maintain a certain amount of scepticism about small screen hype. Take something like Sherlock, which was inescapable for a while, in those long-forgotten far-off days of the Lib Dem-Tory Coalition and Bonkers Boris hosting the London Olympics and British membership of the EU. Critics raved about how sharp and smart it was, with its use of on-screen graphics to depict Sherlock’s thought processes, and to visualise the detailed anatomic knowledge with which he won fights against physically superior foes. There were fun touches like replacing “three pipe problem” with “three patch problem” (we couldn’t have our hero smoke tobacco in the Current Year!) and maintaining Watson’s backstory as an ex-military doctor injured in Afghanistan. The series was astonishingly successful in commercial terms, helped by a strong cast — leads Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman were both on the cusp of global stardom — and managed a respectable haul of BAFTAs and Emmys. 

But looking back, now that the caravan has moved on, it must be said that Sherlock was just not that good; certainly not as good as it thought it was. As with many of Steven Moffat’s creations, it was palpably preoccupied with its own cleverness, to the detriment of delivering satisfyingly coherent plots. This tendency reached an absolute nadir in “The Empty Hearse”, episode one of the third series, when Moffat and his co-writer Mark Gatiss flat out refused to properly resolve the “impossible mystery” they had set up in the final episode of the second series, “The Reichenbach Fall”, eighteen months previously. In that episode, Holmes faked his own death, and in “The Empty Hearse” various characters in-universe offered different possible solutions, of varying levels of plausibility, but the viewer was never actually told how the trick had been worked. As any fan of detective fiction will tell you, this is a cop-out. Doubtless Moffat or his supporters would defend this non-solution as a kind of postmodern flourish, a little knowing joke about the artifice of locked-room mysteries or the fervent speculation that had gripped Sherlock’s fandom in the long gap between the second and third series. But I don’t think people generally tune into TV adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories to have their expectations of whodunits subverted.

Sherlock also suffered from Moffat’s love of convoluted plot arcs with almost comically high stakes, meaning that only a few of the episodes were focused on a single self-contained mystery which the master detective used his gifts of logic and deduction to solve. 

I don’t want to just pick on Sherlock. But it is one of the outstanding examples from recent years of a TV product which was slickly packaged and high-concept and somehow zeigeisty, but in retrospect lacking in substance and enduring interest. Nearly twenty years ago I remember enjoying the first two or three series of Lost, before becoming frustrated with its “mystery box” storytelling, in which countless riddles and enigmas are posed to the viewer to keep them hooked, but either never explained, or explained in a very implausible and unsatisfactory way. Like the Moffat-Gatiss jiggery-pokery noted above, this comes across as a violation of the implicit contract between audience and programme-maker that our attention and loyalty will be rewarded by thoughtful resolutions. 

The 2004 reboot of Battlestar Galactica was critically acclaimed and much lauded in the media for its tackling of contentious issues, but on rewatch many of the analogies and allusions to then-contemporary events like the insurgency in Iraq feel laboured and tenuous. The streaming era, with its huge expansion in the production of would-be “prestige television”, depends on new shows being heavily publicised and constantly hyped as the next Sopranos or the next Succession, or the first Star Wars content to feature a female main protagonist or a gay couple or what have you, but most of them turn out to be forgettable, or start strongly before flaming out into repetition and tedium (as happened to the initially intriguing The Mandalorian). The hard fact is that the critical and social media demand for brilliant and insightful new TV considerably exceeds the supply. 

Friends, for example … has aged poorly

Even shows that were genuinely very good and culturally influential can seem less entertaining and even rather flat on subsequent viewings. Friends, for example, though apparently still popular in reruns with people who weren’t even born when it ended in 2004, has aged poorly. Its style and vibe seems closely bound to a particular time and place and lifestyle. This is not, by and large, the case for its close contemporary Frasier. Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing has been much imitated and does reward revisiting, but the world it portrays already appears impossibly remote, only two decades on.

The passage of time has its own curious alchemy, of rendering the seemingly essential and unmissable trivial and slight, and exposing media fashions as the mere fancies of a passing moment. It is sad, really, to think how little of the cultural production of any given moment will truly endure in the medium — to long-term, to shape the perceptions and folk memory of eras yet to come — and curious to reflect on the perhaps unexpected survivals. During the Covid lockdowns I rewatched One Foot In The Grave, which finished nearly a quarter of a century ago, and was struck by how essentially timeless and universal it felt. The same can be said for some classic documentaries, even those produced fifty or sixty years ago like The Great War and Civilisation, and tightly-written dramas like Colditz or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Does anyone truly know the secret of unfailing resonance and lasting impact? I suspect not, but the ruthless and relentless process of cultural forgetfulness has something to teach us all about humility.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover