A new sleuth for the 21st century.
I was highly skeptical when I learned about the BBC’s modernized take on Sherlock Holmes, setting the character in the modern day, with him talking about texting and blogs and whatnot. It sounded all gimmicky and cutesy. Even with fan-favorite writer Steven Moffat, who crafted several remarkable episodes of Doctor Who, at the helm, I just couldn’t imagine the “thinking man” detective Holmes running around in today’s “instant information” society. My skepticism was unfounded, fortunately, because Moffat and his team proved me wrong, big time.
After being injured in Afghanistan, army doctor John Watson (Martin Freeman, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) moves back home to London. His army pension isn’t much, and he needs a cheap place to stay. An old acquaintance introduces him to potential roommate, Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, Atonement). Sherlock is a “consulting detective,” assisting police on strange and unusual crimes. John finds himself dragged along on Sherlock’s cases, writing about them on his blog.
This first “season” of Sherlock is really a miniseries, made up of three 90-minute episodes:
• “A Study in Pink”
While John and Sherlock meet and start up a rocky friendship, a number of unexplained suicides occur around London. Each one is so similar that police believe there’s some sort of connection. Once Sherlock and John get involved, more is revealed and more lives are on the line.
• “The Blind Banker”
Vandalism at a bank, involving strange symbols, intrigues Sherlock. The case leads to Chinese gangsters, graffiti artists, a missing museum employee, and more.
• “The Great Game”
While Sherlock is asked to recover some stolen missile plans, he’s contacted by a sinister killer. Now, in order to keep the unseen baddie from killing his hostages, Sherlock has to solve a series of unsolved cases before the clock runs out.
Everything old is new again. How can the Sherlock Holmes character compete with the likes of CSI and other high-tech forensic types? Turns out he doesn’t have to; he just has to be himself. Holmes is not a cop, he doesn’t have access to high-tech crime labs in any era. He has his rooms in 221B Baker St., Watson to talk to, and his always-busy mind. That’s the way it was back in Victorian England, and that’s the way it is today.
In the bonus features, Moffat and co-creator Mike Gatiss discuss their fondness for the Holmes films of 1940s, starring Basil Rathbone. Although Rathbone’s Holmes is an iconic performance, the films are controversial among fans for being “non-canon,” in that they take place at the time, in the ’40s. Moffat and Gatkiss enjoyed this, though. They thought of Holmes as a contemporary character, wanting to see him in the modern day. The good news is that now matter how modern the setting, the Holmes character doesn’t need any updating.
Yes, there is talk of texting and blogging, everyone’s cell phones are totally pimped out, and crime scenes are scrutinized for DNA, but Sherlock, as always, relies on his own powers of deduction over any high-tech doodads. By viewing the small scuff marks on someone’s phone, Sherlock can deduce ways in which the phone has been used, which tells him something about its owner’s personality, which leads him to a vital clue that cracks the case. He notices what no one else can, and he’s able to connect the dots among these small details to crack the case. No forensic lab can compete with that, and it’s what makes the character so much fun.
Is the modern setting mere window dressing, then? A gimmick to get young people interested in Holmes? I’d say no, simply because of how well it’s used. In some ways, the creators have found modern equivalents of classic Holmes lore. Instead of writing for the Strand magazine, for example, Watson keeps a blog, which has the same effect of giving Sherlock small amount of fame as he goes about his investigations. Our heroes take London black cabs around town instead of horse-drawn carriages, that sort of thing. Don’t forget that the main characters use their first names, so it’s “Sherlock and John” instead of “Holmes and Watson.” It takes some getting used to, but the actors make it feel natural.
In other ways, though, the modernization of the characters shows them making the most of everything our day has to offer. Characters communicate by texting, and Sherlock can Google any facts not immediately available. Instead of playing this up as “Ha, ha, Sherlock Holmes is using a cell phone,” it’s merely a natural part of the narrative, offering viewers some quick exposition and moving the story forward when it needs to. To that point, many times when characters send and receive texts, the message is shown to viewers like a subtitle, with the words right on screen, above or to the side of the characters’ hands. Again, this is a quick, concise way to get the information to the audience without having to cut to a close up of the phone every time someone texts someone.
Cumberbactch is an excellent find as Sherlock. He’s believable as the character, portraying all of Sherlock’s confidence and smarts, as well as his quirks and frustrations. Because Sherlock is often bored with ordinary folks, in that he thinks so far ahead of everyone else, it’s often a danger that the character will come off as too conceited or cantankerous, and unlikable to audiences. Part of this is diffused by giving him some humor, so the occasional wry wisecrack, no matter how ill-timed, shows this guy does have his human side. This is further reinforced by his friendship with John. Although Sherlock views himself as superior, he nonetheless says he appreciates John’s opinions and claims he can think better by bouncing ideas off of John. His friendship with John shows there is a real human being beneath his otherwise cold, intellectual exterior.
In recent years, Holmesians have reexamined the personality of John Watson, trying to unlock just who this guy is, making him the most-studied sidekick in recent years. As a doctor, he’s no idiot, and as a soldier, he’s no wimp. Freeman’s performance has a lot of humor, but he’s not the bumbling buffoon that Nigel Bruce often made him out to be. His version of John is also not quite the brawler that Jude Law made him out to be, either. Much like the original tales, John is an “everyman,” a stand in for the audience. At the start of the first episode, he bemoans how nothing exciting ever happens to him. We in the audience chuckle at this, knowing he’s about to meet Sherlock. But this also shows that he’s an ordinary guy caught up in extraordinary circumstances, longing for adventure even if he doesn’t realize it. Once he discovers that adventure, he jumps in with both feet, at times trying to deduce solutions to the crimes on his own. He enjoys being on the case with Sherlock, despite Sherlock’s standoffishness and life and death on the line.
It’s not just Sherlock and John, the gang’s all here—Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves, V for Vendetta), Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs, Summer Holiday) and Mycroft Holmes (Mark Gatiss, Match Point) are regulars, and a certain professor even makes his presence felt. In addition, there’s a cute female morgue worker (why do so many cop/detective shows have cute female morgue workers?) with a thing for Sherlock, and a couple of sidekicks for Lestrade, ones who don’t trust Sherlock nearly as much as he does. These actors bring a lot to their roles, adding to the overall color of the series, as do the victims/suspects/killers guest starring in each episode. Andrew Scott (John Adams) plays a character familiar to Holmsians, and he’s been somewhat controversial, giving the role all kinds of odd quirks. I didn’t mind so much, though, and I look forward to when (if?) he returns in future episodes.
There’s an awkward moment in the first episode in which relationships are brought up as John and Sherlock get to know each other. They don’t flat-out ask each other “Are you gay?” but they’re clearly tiptoeing around asking it, and no answer is given. What are viewers to make of this scene? Is it merely a wacky comedy moment? Is this an attempt to explain why Sherlock isn’t dating anyone? Is it the creators’ way of throwing a bone (heh) to those fans who believe that Holmes and Watson are an item? As it is now, the scene is just sort of there, and it doesn’t establish or resolve anything. As the series progresses, John pursues a romances with a woman, while Holmes is married to his work, nothing more. This is more or less how it was in the originals, although fans will forever debate these two guys and what relationships they may or may not be in.
A lot of care clearly went into filming the series, giving it a theatrical look, including generous location shooting in London (I can barely imagine the logistics that went into filming the scene at Trafalgar Square). The DVD captures it all with nice clarity, including bright colors and deep, rich blacks. The sound is good as well, really shining when the upbeat score kicks in. The first and third episodes get commentaries from the writers and actors, and these are must-listen tracks. These guys are walking Holmes encyclopedias, and my head was swimming at all the trivia these guys drop. There’s also an excellent making of feature that goes deeper into the actual production, as well as the original 60-minute pilot, a smaller, scaled-down version of “A Study in Pink” with the same cast. The subtitles are a huge help for us crude Americans struggling with those English accents.
Watching Sherlock, I kept thinking back to the James Bond films, and how that although there isn’t a lot of continuity in that series, each Bond movie represents the era in which it was made, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. Moffat and his team see Sherlock Holmes the same way, using the character to reflect the times. The world has changed, but Sherlock is still Sherlock, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.