Back in 2010, I started hearing about the BBC’s new Sherlock series. The word was overwhelmingly positive — people seemed to love this new reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes character and mythos, set in modern-day London. I was interested, but frankly having just recently seen and thoroughly enjoyed Guy Ritchie and Robert Downey Junior’s own recent reinvention of Sherlock holmes, in the film Sherlock Holmes (click here for my review), I wasn’t sure I was really all that interested in yet another version of the characters.
Well, I’m kicking myself for resisting for as long as I did, because the BBC’s Sherlock is absolutely magnificent. If you haven’t yet seen it, I strongly encourage you to seek it out!
Sherlock Season One, like most British TV series, is short. It consists of three hour-and-a-half-long episodes, each basically a movie in and of itself. Each episode adapts a different Sherlock Holmes short story. Sherlock is set in modern-day London, and I found myself continually delighted by the way the writers adapted the Holmes stories to modern-day times, while still preserving the heart of the original stories (as well as their delightful complexities). It’s great fun to see the way cell-phones, the internet, GPS tracking, and modern-day science and forensics evidence are seamlessly incorporated into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic stories. It all works because the makers of this show are focused on preserving the core aspects of the original stories, rather than just jettisoning everything other than the character names. Instead, it’s as if the writers have asked themselves, how could Conan Doyle have written this story had he been alive today? Their answers are fiendishly clever.
The two leads are both excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch has created, in just three episodes, an absolutely iconic portrayal of the great detective. His Sherlock is an incredibly cold creature, someone who prides himself on not feeling normal emotions and, instead, seeking complete intellectual detachment from his cases. The show is not afraid to dare the audience to dislike its main character! But Mr. Cumberbatch always shows us the human heart beating beneath Sherlock’s intelligence and his often cruel demeanor. Meanwhile, Martin Freeman (Tim from the original British The Office, as well as Arthur Dent from the film adaptation of The Hitchhikers’s Guide to the Galaxy) adds another classic everyman character to his resume with his portrayal of John Watson. When we first meet him, in the opening scenes of the series, Watson has just returned from military service in Afghanistan (just as the character had in the original stories — a canny bit of serendipity), and he is emotionally lost. Of course, he eventually crosses paths with Sherlock, and a great partnership is formed. The show is very successful in showing us how Watson, just as much as Sherlock, comes to life when the opportunity to investigate a case arrives.
The show has a very modern look to it, with fast-paced editing and something of a digital feel to the cinematography. The show is also joyously playful with the imagery, superimposing graphics and text on the screen, usually as a way of putting the viewing inside Sherlock’s rapidly-moving mind. When Sherlock looks at a person he’s just met, the camera darts around, showing us extreme close-ups of what he or she is wearing, with voice-overs and text-overlays helping us follow Sherlock’s incredible leaps of deduction in quickly deducing an entire history of that individual. It’s very clever, one of my favorite aspects of the show.
Rupert Graves is great fun as the long-suffering Detective-Inspector Lestrade, who finds he continually has need of Sherlock’s investigative services. Speaking of a long-suffering character, series co-creator Mark Gatiss plays Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother who fancies himself something of a protector for his brother but who, like Lestrade, seems to keep finding himself in need of Sherlock’s aid. (I adore Stephen Fry, but I must say I vastly preferred Mr. Gatiss’ portrayal of Mycroft to Mr. Fry’s in the recent Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (click here for my review). This Mycroft is, thankfully, far less of a buffoon.)
The three episodes on season one are “A Study in Pink” (an adaptation of the first Sherlock Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet,”), “The Blind Banker,” and “The Great Game.” The first two are very solid adventure stories, but it’s in “The Great Game” that the series really takes off. In that third installment, we are at last introduced to Sherlock’s great nemesis, Moriarty — though here, he’s not at all a stuffy academic, but rather a young man about the same age as the show’s Sherlock, albeit one who is much more psychotic. It’s a very bold interpretation of the character, and at first I was shocked by the direction they were going, but I was quickly sold. Let me clarify, though, that “The Great Game” works not just because it introduces Moriarty, but because it is an incredibly fast-paced, intense story that presents, not just one, but an escalating series of mysteries for Sherlock to solve, as Moriarty intensifies his mental competition with his new-found rival. One after another, Moriarty kidnaps various innocent people off the streets of London, then sends Sherlock tiny clues which he must piece together in order to find them before the bomb strapped to their chest explodes. Each time Sherlock finds one person, Moriarty e-mails him another clue in regards to a new victim. The final victim, of course, is John Watson. ”The Great Game” represents the series at its best, bringing the Holmes-Watson relationship into focus and presenting the characters (and the audience) with one fiendishly complex mystery and adventure after another in thrilling short order.
Needless to say, as soon as “The Great Game” was finished, I was on Amazon ordering Sherlock Season Two!