What Separates a Guilty Pleasure From a Great Show? A Study in Sherlock

I recently had a conversation with a friend about what kind of television show constitutes a “guilty pleasure.” At first glance, the concept seems paradoxical; if you’re the kind of person who views the consumption of television as a complete waste of time—that is, as an activity that is partly responsible for the intellectual degradation of our entire species—then you would feel guilty watching any TV show at all, and this feeling of guilt would necessarily cancel out any accompanying feelings of pleasure. How, then, can we categorize a show that constitutes a guilty pleasure?

I’d like to offer a suggestion: A guilty pleasure is a short-lived obsession, or a TV relationship of the one-night stand variety. It is a show that  piques your interest enough so that you rationalize away all of the elements of the show that would otherwise give you pause. In other words, a guilty pleasure show is enjoyable because the “pleasure” outweighs the “guilt.”

Naturally, not every TV viewer will boast the same type of guilty pleasure show, but the process of  shamefacedly embracing such a show plays out in a familiar fashion across the board. To demonstrate this process, I present an example of one of my own guilty pleasure shows: The CW’s Arrow. How did I come to first watch Arrow? Thanks to a little something I like to call “the Hook.” In this case, the Hook (or Captain Hook, in another case) looks something like this:


Oh, come on, CW. You think I’m a dopey, unenlightened tween? I see what you’re doing there… and holy jeebus, it is working. I could watch Shirtless Stephen Amell, starring as billionaire-by-day, vigilante-by-night Oliver Queen, read the side of a cereal box for 42 minutes each week if it turns out that’s what this show’s really about.

Of course, if I could get my fix by observing Amell engage in mundane activities, there’d be no reason to actually watch his show. Wouldn’t following his Instagram or Twitter account be a more effective use of my time? (Yes. Yes it would be.)

In that case, there must be something else to reel me in—let’s call it “the Line.” Once I’ve been hooked by a show,  I need a Line to keep me interested. On Arrow, the fact that Stephen Amell’s abs are the Eighth World Wonder is supplemented by an engaging supporting cast, headed by the quirky and brainy Felicity (Emily Bett Rickards), whose sparkling personality makes up for the generic blandness of the show’s other characters. As for the plot? The drama of hero-fighting-bad-guys is occasionally speckled with flashbacks to Oliver’s time on a semi-deserted island just a hop, skip, and a cinematic jump from the island on Lost. These flashback scenes are only dramatically compelling insofar as it showcases a wimpier, whinier Oliver reminiscent of Star Wars IV’s Luke Skywalker. So, points for cultural allusions!

The problem with guilty pleasure shows is that the Line eventually runs out. If, after a couple of episodes, or a season or five, the only thing tying me to the show is the main character’s implausibly ripped physique, I’ll call it quits as soon as the novelty of that wears off. If the other characters get on my nerves for their maddeningly dull personas, or the show’s plot stagnates or meanders into a narrative bog, or the showrunners keep playing cheesy music during faux-romantic moments—snap! I’ll reach the end of the Line. In other words, when the “guilt” outweighs the “pleasure,” I see no point in pushing myself to keep watching. And after a certain point, the guilt always outweighs the pleasure. As per the one-night stand analogy, I’ll probably end up ditching Arrow sometime in the not-so-distant future, in much the same way as I unceremoniously dumped shows like Smallville and Once Upon A Time.

But a good show—dare I say, a great show—is one that you swallow Hook, Line, and Sinker.

A great show induces no element of guilt, no reason to question your utter devotion to its indestructible grip on your imagination, because there is simply nothing wrong with it. You want your guilty pleasure show to remain hidden in order to spare yourself the embarrassment of having to explain your commitment to such a flawed enterprise, but you want your great show to remain hidden because you fantasize that it belongs to you, and to you alone. You and this show have something so special, the rest of the culturally attuned world couldn’t possibly understand. Yet at the same time, the depth and breadth of your feelings for this show insist on bubbling over so that you have no choice but to profess your love for it from the highest Twitter mountaintops, as you jump up and down on the Facebook equivalent of Oprah’s couch. If guilty pleasures are the one-night stands of television show addictions, great shows are the exotic, blossoming relationships that color our lives in profound and unexpected ways.

I am, of course, speaking from experience, specifically regarding my recent discovery (thanks to the prodding of several different friends) of the BBC show Sherlock, which airs its season three finale tonight in the UK and elsewhere for anyone with an internet connection. Immediately Hooked by the witty dialogue and the fascinatingly complex characterization of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes—not a psychopath, but a “high-functioning sociopath,” as he’s quick to point out—I was then reeled in by the diverse supporting characters, the elaborately developed, high-stakes crime plots, the impishly self-aware nature of the show, and most of all, the crackling yet effortless chemistry between Sherlock Holmes and his trusty sidekick, Doctor John Watson.

When I first began watching Sherlock, I wanted to keep it all to myself. Soon enough, however, my enthusiasm spilled over into cyberspace, and, further, into my social circles. But as the third season hit the air, something prompted me to slow down. My friend Shani nailed it by saying: “Sherlock is so good that I don’t want to watch it.”

Sherlock, in other words, is a show that you savor. It’s so arresting that you want to watch an episode every day for the rest of your life; but in the absence of that possibility, you delay as long as humanly possible between episodes in order to prolong the anticipation. In the absence of that possibility (because, let’s face it, who among us millenials actually has what they used to call “willpower”?), you go ahead and convince others to start watching the show so that you can sit in on the viewing of each episode for a second time.

You know you’re head-over-heels in love with a show when the simple process of clicking “Play” shocks you with a palpable twinge of excitement; when the opening notes of the show’s musical theme brings a goofy smile to your face; when you wake up in the morning with said theme song in your head and find that it’s not in the least bit irksome; and when you realize you’re describing a television show, not your long-lost soulmate, but you just don’t care because it’s that good and the whole world would probably be a happier place if everyone just sat down to watch this damn show right now.

Explaining the brilliance of Sherlock-the-show must necessarily begin with explaining the brilliance of Sherlock-the-character. When I say “brilliant,” I mean it in nearly every sense of the word; Sherlock Holmes is known to be “exceptionally clever,” and Cumberbatch’s compelling performance illuminates each and every scene.

Sherlock himself is one of the most interesting characters I have ever had the pleasure of encountering on the small screen. He is both impulsive and predictable, repulsive and endearing, encyclopedically clever and woefully oblivious. In his own words, he is “the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious asshole that anyone should have the misfortune to meet”—and yet he often betrays an inner conscience and vulnerability. The steadiness of Sherlock’s character, far from turning him into a two-dimensional robot, speaks volumes about the subtle genius of the show’s creators (Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock’s brother, Mycroft, and Steven Moffat, of Doctor Who fame). In many situations, you know exactly what Sherlock is going to do or say—and you revel in his constancy, because the predictability of his actions demonstrates that in some small way, you really know him. Sherlock can be quaintly caring—after resolving to take his pal, John Watson, out for a night on the town, he painstakingly calculates the precise level of alcohol intake required for Watson to maximize his enjoyment of the evening. But he can also be shockingly (albeit, for audiences, delightfully) callous, as evidenced by his unbridled glee in stumbling upon a murder, or his cold disregard for what he derogatorily calls “sentiment.” Yet even when—or especially when—Sherlock is out of his element, his performance scintillates. Exhibit A: “A Scandal in Belgravia”’s cat-and-mouse game between Sherlock and dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver)—an exhilarating beauty-and-brains clash to dwarf all others.

As befitting his canonical character, Sherlock Holmes possesses a superhuman intellect that catapults him above and beyond his companions. But Gatiss and Moffat don’t keep Sherlock on his pedestal for long. Over the course of his many (mis)adventures, Sherlock becomes heartbreakingly humanized. As Watson relates during a particularly poignant moment, Sherlock is “the most human…human being” he has ever known. And if that sounds tautological, it’s only because the character of Sherlock Holmes is simply beyond all rational description—he is, in a sense, greater than the sum of his parts.

(This is all to say nothing of arch-villain Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott), whose performance warrants an apt comparison to Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight. The interplay between Sherlock and Moriarty? As they say across the ocean: Bloody brilliant.)

Considering the picture I’ve painted of Cumberbatch’s Holmes, there would seem to be no crack for the light of Martin Freeman’s Dr. John Watson to shine through. But as Sherlock proclaims, some people who aren’t geniuses themselves have the amazing ability to stimulate it in others—or, more archaically, Watson is “unbeatable” even as a mere “conductor of light.” Freeman is a phenomenal actor in his own right, and he infuses the character of John Watson with a life and light that is entirely his own. I would go even further and suggest that Watson is compelling because he is, in a sense, us—his exasperation with Sherlock’s many eccentricities is tempered by his insurmountable fascination with him, and his thirst for mystery mirrors the fans’ desire for more cases, more episodes, and more mind-bending, gut-twisting adventure. Also, let’s be honest: We all covet Watson’s enviable position as “the best friend of Sherlock Holmes.”

The chemistry between these two characters—Cumberbatch and Freeman’s Holmes and Watson—is the indisputable core of this show. They complete each other. They are the yin and yang of the ultimate dynamic duo. Their relentless bantering makes us laugh our heads off, and their heart-to-hearts make us cry our eyes out. All in all, they feel so real— and yet so much better than reality.

Anticipating the proliferation of slasher fanfiction pairing Sherlock and John Watson as lovers, Gatiss and Moffat made this idea the butt of jokes at the outset, prompting Watson to explain—sometimes exasperated, other times enraged—that “We’re not gay!”; and, indeed, he seems to be hiding a smile as he glares straight into the camera. Gatiss and Moffat have even more fun at the fans’ expense, most notably in the season three premiere. Ludicrous scenes that play out onscreen undoubtedly reflect material grabbed from teh interwebz, demonstrating the writers’ playful awareness of the audience to which they are catering, and of the wider world in which we live. Like many public figures these days, John Watson maintains a popular blog (which actually exists, by the way, but beware of spoilers), and Sherlock’s handling of his Smartphone brings a whole new meaning to the word “Smart.” At one point in “A Scandal in Belgravia,” Mycroft Holmes suggests putting “maximum surveillance” on Irene Adler, to which Sherlock replies, “Why bother? You can follow her on Twitter.”

At a certain point, though, my affection for this show—this great show—goes beyond all explanation; even after piecing together the various aspects of the show that make it so wonderful, it becomes something more than the sum of its parts. And that, my friends, is “the Sinker”—when you move beyond the point of rational description and resort to hyperbolizing with phrases like “BEST EVAR” and “CAN’T IMAGINE LIFE WITHOUT IT, TBH.”

Of course, my obsession with this show could be explained away by simply stating that everything sounds better in a British accent. But you’ll just have to watch it and deduce that for yourself.


3 thoughts on “What Separates a Guilty Pleasure From a Great Show? A Study in Sherlock

  1. I was interested in the concept of Arrow when it premiered last year, but we do not ever watch the CW. Now that I watch Comcast’s On Demand for free channel I am beginning to broaden my list of shows and Arrow is a new addition. I am catching up from the beginning right now on Netflix, so just past the episode where Diggle joins Oliver. Felicity has not yet, but she is certainly a good reason to watch.

  2. I’m also only in the middle of the first season of Arrow (a bit ahead of you), and I was actually being a bit unfair towards the show– right now, I’m pretty into it, because it’s enjoyable on a couple of different levels. There are definitely some cringeworthy moments/episodes, but overall, it’s pretty enjoyable. Hence: the perfect guilty pleasure show. Since it’s only in the middle of the second season, I’d say it’s worth the investment.

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