Guy Ritchie is directing Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law in next year's adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. To get to this glorious point, the mystery genre has undergone a wholesale reinvention, with shows like Dexter and True Blood shaking up the form with more than just violence and sex. Why are mysteries back?The scarcity of worthy Hollywood properties means that every halfway decent book will see itself staged eventually. And since young people today don't read books, this may be the only way for some of the best storytelling in our culture to get its proper appreciation. Among the different literary genres, some are more suited for the process than others. What always works, and always will work, is a mystery. While networks have been mining the soap opera with some success, mysteries work just as well in the serial form. Sure, CSI can fall into the general category, but the best mysteries aren't procedurals — they are true whodunits, giving the audience a litany of engaging small clues that keep them guessing. The best shows on television right now are all mining this territory.
You can write your way out of any jam with forensics, Showtime's Dexter suggests, but a serial killer still has to lie to the people he loves. After a second season that ranked with any in recent memory, the show has been built around the uneasy friendship between Dexter and district attorney Miguel Prado, played by Jimmy Smits. Based on Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter series, the show has overcome the corniness of its premise — "serial killer is a cop" — and become a far deeper exploration of what we hide from each other. And it's also really funny. The Skinner is this season's mysterious killer, and there's already more than fifteen potential suspects. (This isn't the first time Dexter has had to fend off another killer moving in on his territory.) The thread has been masterfully drawn out over nine hours of television, and it's one of the TV season's best storylines — one that has viewers watching in record numbers. The only fear is that when this show re-airs on sister network CBS it will have so much profanity and violence cut out that the show will be madeall but unrecognizable for a mass audience craving something new.
Then there's True Blood, Alan Ball's HBO series marketed largely as a supernatural sex odyssey. For those who look past the vampires and shapeshifters, the basic story is no different — Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin) is a detective (albeit an unusual one) who hears the thoughts of humans as they beat in their skull. In Bon Temps, Lousiana, someone is killing people close to her, and once again there's an entire town full of motives, not to mention supernatural beings with reasons we couldn't begin to fathom. The unfolding vampire mythology is just as compelling (and bizarre) as the murder mystery. Alone, neither of this elements is particularly original, but stirred together, Ball's show is a triumph. If you tuned out because of Anna Paquin's accent, you made a critical mistake. Based on Southern mystery writer Charlaine Harris' Dead Until Dark series, the HBO show is a scene-by-scene reenactment of the books, highlighting how much easier it is to translate something to the screen when the original follows a familiar structure.
In both of these shows, part of what's refreshing is that we never have all the information about the characters. Instead of keeping the viewer perpetually ahead of the action and characters, Dexter and True Blood keep you spinning in the ether. Since we're so jaded about knowing what's coming in television, that's a good thing. Guy Ritchie and company are intent on making Sherlock Holmes a successful film franchise, and it'll need new elements just like Dexter and True Blood. Early rumors seem to imply the supernatural will be more heavily involved than in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's day. Still, the structure's the thing. Young people aren't raised on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, let alone Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie, so this revival could really get a new generation interested in watching (and reading) the genre. Were The Hardy Boys taught to more young men instead of the decidedly less optimistic Lord of the Flies, we might have better television to watch today.