November 14, 2010

I loved Sherlock from the opening, where we’re introduced to Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman, Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and the very nice porn stand-in in Love Actually). Dr. Watson is still an Army medic, but that means a very different thing to the viewer when the war was in today’s Afghanistan instead of that of 1880. He’s living in a tiny flat, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, with a leg wounded in action, and blogging instead of writing stories in his journal.

Sherlock cover
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This approach is fresh, moving the classic detective and his supporting cast to today’s London. Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), for example, instead of being a bumbler, is a working detective stumped by the unusual, and he has his own methods of persuasion. Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) is a nice older woman who worries about Sherlock and keeps muttering “I’m not your housekeeper, love, I’m your landlady.”

This modern revamp was created by Steven Moffat (who created and wrote Coupling and is the current producer of Doctor Who) and Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who writer; he also plays Mycroft here).

Sherlock Holmes (played by an actor with the glorious name of Benedict Cumberbatch) is as prickly as ever, almost inhuman in his interactions and observations, but up-to-date on today’s technology, texting and hanging out in mortuary labs and running a website. He’s gangly and effete-looking, almost alien-ish with light almond eyes (if I’m noticing right, one blue, one green) and impressive cheekbones, very eye-catching. His emotional extremes are wonderful to watch, and more energetic and understandable than the remoteness of some previous portrayals.

The current-day twists are amusing, as when Watson stumps Holmes on a key item after the consulting detective reveals a stunning chain of logic or Mrs. Hudson wonders if they’re a couple, without judgment, or Mycroft plays phone games. One particular clue from the first episode turns on the same premise as in the original story, but where over a century ago, it was based around a latchkey, today it’s a cell phone charger. It’s also refreshing to see a Watson worthy of being Sherlock’s friend, capable in his own way.

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman)

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and John Watson (Martin Freeman)

This set only contains three “episodes”, which I’m quoting because they’re more like mini-movies, an hour and a half each. “A Study in Pink” tracks a string of serial suicides through a mysterious poison. Warning: don’t search for information on the show before you see it, because everyone seems to think it’s just fine to reveal the mystery solution, presumably because it’s based on an old book. It felt like something new to me, though.

Sherlock’s observations are noted for us by text floating through the image, as are the various cellphone messages. It’s a bit showy, but a lot less so than the flashy techniques used in the recent movie. The performances are excellent, especially Freeman in the less attention-getting part, as is the production. It’s frightening, suspenseful, full of adventure, and with welcome touches of humor. “I’m in shock! Look, I’ve got a blanket!” says Sherlock, trying to distract Lestrade from something he’s said he doesn’t want noticed.

In “The Blind Banker”, a missing museum worker, a robbery marked with striking yellow graffiti, and a dead financial trader’s apparent suicide are connected to a mystery full of codes and Chinese artifacts. The banking world makes for an excellent update, as these are just the kind of people Holmes would have worked for in his day but still seem very of the moment. I liked best the bits about Watson trying to have a date.

“The Great Game” starts with Sherlock listening to an accused murderer, more interested in teaching him proper English than helping him escape the punishment he deserves. He’s bored, until the flat is blown up, but that still won’t convince him to help his brother in the case of the death of a civil servant. Instead, he’s occupied with a mad bomber who’s setting Holmes puzzles, with victims as bait.

Special features for the Sherlock set are commentaries for episodes one (the producers) and three (the actors); the unaired pilot (a 60-minute version of “A Study in Pink”); and a half-hour making-of documentary, “Unlocking Sherlock”. All features are listed as appearing on the DVD version as well, for those who haven’t yet upgraded formats to Blu-ray.

I wanted to rewatch the episodes immediately after viewing, always a high recommendation, and to reread the original stories as well. The next season of three episodes is due next fall. I can’t wait! Highly recommended as enjoyable, well-made television. It’s brilliant! (The studio provided a review copy.)

16 Responses  
James Schee writes:  

Wow thanks, as I had never even heard of this. Sounds very intriguing, I’m a big Holmes fan, so I’ll have to look for this.

Craig writes:  

It is superb television, honestly some of the best I’ve seen in years (and considering how much I loved season 2 of Fringe, that’s saying something). The only maddening thing is having to wait until next fall for three more episodes. The British are deeply cruel.

Nathan writes:  

Although this series was created by the BBC, you don’t mention PBS is running them as a part of Masterpiece Mystery! this season.

I like that both Holmes and Watson read much younger in their personalities, more prone to quibbling in their irritation than their overly polite Victorian predecessors. They both display a social roughness which seems to make them more accessible, despite retaining much of their original quirkiness. I also like that sexuality is openly discussed, and yet Sherlock remains aloof and ambiguous.

I agree this is a fun and admirable adaptation. It gives you something to look forward to next year.

Chris Collins writes:  

If you haven’t seen it, there is still time to watch some of the episodes on line:


Rob writes:  

I saw a chunk of what I think was the second episode last week at 4:00 AM (don’t ask what I was doing up at that time) and was really impressed. I liked the characterization of Holmes as an Aspergers-like social recluse, and of Watson as more than just a hanger-on and stenographer.

The show’s already avaiable on Netflix for those who missed the broadcast. I’ll be watching the rest once the disks get to me.

Johanna writes:  

Thanks for sharing the PBS information and link! I’m not very up on their schedules. But yes, I agree that it’s very cruel to put out just a little great TV and then make us wait for more.

James Schee writes:  

Incredible!! I just watched the first ep (thanks for the link!) and if it wasn’t near midnight I’d watch the next two.:) Fun, intelligent and just well cool!

Thad writes:  

Loved it and looking forward to more. I was skeptical about Freeman in a serious role but he nailed it; can’t wait to see him as Bilbo Baggins.

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