(Originally published in August, this review is being reposted now that the show is airing on PBS)
“A magical romp through contemporary London! A show that even the most die-hard Sherlock Holmes’ fan would appreciate! Martin Freeman is pitch perfect! “Sherlock” is a high-energy thrill ride! It’s the most exciting show on television this summer! A must see! A television classic! An explosive thriller that keeps you guessing every step of the way! Steven Moffat is at the top of his game. I give “Sherlock” all the stars in the sky!”
That’s the blurb-whore version of “Sherlock,” an updated version of the British series that finished it’s short first-season run last night on the UK and will air on PBS this fall. And as hyperbolic as it may seem, it’s also not far off the mark. “Sherlock” is brilliant, a show that will appeal to contemporary audiences and Jeremy Brett fans alike. It has all the energy of Guy Ritchie’s theatrical film, with the intelligence and sophistication of the old series. Steven Moffat is a goddamn television genius, people. “Sherlock” the best thing I’ve seen on the small screen since “Breaking Bad,” ended its season. And that’s a blurb I wouldn’t mind whoring.
The idea of a contemporary Sherlock Holmes might sound sacrilege to some, but Moffat manages to update it — with all the newfangled technologies that our modern world provides — and somehow keep it faithful to the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Technology is often a hindrance to modern mysteries; DNA fingerprinting, computer forensics, and GPS often take the fun out of crime solving. With Moffat’s “Sherlock,” it only presents new challenges, challenges that Moffat stays well ahead of. Contemporary Holmes doesn’t abandon modern tech; he incorporates it. But it doesn’t distract from his deductive skills, his ability to read a person in seconds, or quickly analyze a crime scene. Modern gadgets may be able to help answer questions, but it’s always been Sherlock’s job to figure out what questions to ask, and that’s where computers and PDAs haven’t yet caught up with human intelligence, and where a detective like Holmes will always be useful.
As much as I did like Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes — mostly because of the chemistry between RDJ and Jude Law — it did feel like something of a cheat to incorporate since-learned discoveries into a 19th century mystery. Moffat’s “Sherlock,” doesn’t take any narrative shortcuts; it’s brimming with deductions and the chemistry between the new Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the new Watson, Martin Freeman, is as lively as that of RDJ and Law. Indeed, after witnessing the three 90-minute British television movies, Ritche’s version feels even more like a watered-down Hollywood product. “Sherlock,” modern or no, is the real thing; it updates not just Doyle’s characters and the aesthetic, but his brand of mysteries, as well.
Part of the fun, especially in the opening episode, is rediscovering the Holmesian conventions, now set in modern London. Watson is a veteran wounded in the Afghanistan war, where he served as a doctor. He’s also in therapy, suffering from psychosomatic PTSD. Holmes is a detective’s consultant, living at his usual address, 221B Baker Street (with new London street signs), only now it’s a modern flat. The two are brought together when Holmes needs a flatmate, and Watson needs a place to live. The love/hate connection is instant; Holmes is brilliant but irritating, while Watson is loyal and tolerating. Freeman is also the best thing about this show and, like in the novels, an equal partner and not a sidekick — Holmes may solve the mysteries, but it’s Watson who saves the day.
Moffat is quick to steep “Sherlock,” in the old mythology, reviving the dynamic Holmes/Watson chemistry, Holmes’ somewhat creepy asexuality (Holmes’ only relationship is with his work), as well as his fondness for illicit substances and nicotine (his pipe, however, has been replaced hilariously with nicotine patches — multiple patches when he really needs to think). Holmes’ relationship with law enforcement is also strained; they don’t like him, but respect his intelligence. He’s only brought in after all the other options have been exhausted. And even Mrs. Hudson has returned (Una Stubbs), insisting she’s only the landlady as she brings Holmes or Watson another tray of tea and biscuits.
All of the old elements are there — even Professor Moriarty, a central background figure, driving much of the narrative; they’ve just been updated for the 21st century, enlivened with a faster pace (a pace that requires a little more plot density), and given a tone similar to that of Moffat’s “Doctor Who”: Quirky, exuberant, and knowing. The deduction sequences are downright phenomenal — they’re more than a gimmick. They help to drive the narratives. Through three episodes (movies, really), I’m absolutely smitten, and convinced that Moffat will do for Sherlock Holmes what he and Russell T. Davies have done for the modern “Who.” To wit: I give “Sherlock” all the stars in the sky!
(Hat Tips to Rebecca and Sarah for the recommends)