Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sherlock: The BBC Brings Us Holmes Again

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on July 20, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.


Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the new Holmes and Watson

Every once in a while, a television series comes along and surprises you. Sometimes it’s because a show is so stunningly original that no precedent could have prepared you for it (e.g. HBO’s Carnivale and FOX’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer). But other times, it’s because a road has been so well-trodden that you go along for the ride, but honestly don’t expect to see anything new there. This past Sunday, BBC One broadcast “A Study in Pink” the first episode of Sherlock, a 21st century re-imagining of the celebrated Arthur Conan Doyle character. Benedict Cumberbatch (BBC’s The Last Enemy, Creation, The Other Boleyn Girl) stars as the titular Holmes and Watson is played by the more recognizable Martin Freeman (Tim in BBC’s The Office, and Arthur Dent in the 2005 film adaptation of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy). The series is the brainchild of Steven Moffat (Doctor Who, Jekyll, Coupling) and actor/writer Mark Gatiss (The League of Gentlemen, Doctor Who). Moffat has a long history of critical and popular success on the BBC, and it is possible his career has recently reached a new height. In addition to this new series, this past year he took on the helm of BBC’s flagship series, Doctor Who. Given the numerous imaginings of Holmes available on television and film, one might be forgiven for thinking we need a new Sherlock Holmes series as urgently as we need a new brand of vanilla ice cream. Fortunately, this is one instance when that persistent gap between what we believe we need and what we get works decidedly in our favour!

This first run of Sherlock consists of three feature-length episodes, each running 90-minutes. (This coming fall, the series will air in the U.S. on PBS, under the Masterpiece Mystery! banner. It will also air, beginning September 10, on Showcase in Canada.) Set in contemporary London, the show succeeds in bringing familiar and beloved characters firmly into the new century while preserving the magic of the source material. The final result is a show that is funny, suspenseful, and eminently entertaining. Sherlock has something to offer both to those pre-inclined to love it, and those with no familiarity with Sherlock Holmes or the BBC.

Jeremy Brett as Holmes in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
For Holmes watchers—even aficionados of the long-running ITV series, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994), often heralded as the most definitive and authentic adaptation of Conan Doyle’s stories—this new series, in spite of its playful re-setting of the show in our own era, is a delight. Even as the series takes us firmly into this century, it remains true to both the tone and characters of Conan Doyle’s texts.

Some things are comfortably familiar: the 221B Baker St. address, the always reliable landlady, Mrs. Hudson, a grudgingly supplicatory Inspector Lestrade. Other features of the original stories are updated: Holmes’ well-known discomfort with normal human contact leads him to a new penchant for texting, Watson is seeing a psychiatrist to treat suspected Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Holmes checks recent weather reports on a Smartphone instead of leafing through old newspapers. These innovations are clever without ever becoming too clever, and very quickly fall into the background of a compelling and well-told story. Moffatt and Gatiss, in this first episode, reveal their familiarity with The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and their respect for long-time fans of the British detective.

Steven Moffat on the set of Doctor Who
This show promises to be equally engaging for those who have no investment in the Sherlock Holmes franchise. Moffat and Gatiss have both worked on Doctor Who , and there is no doubt a decidedly Doctor Who-like feel to the show, especially in the skillful way it mixes intrigue, dark humour, and whip-smart dialogue. (And it doesn’t hurt that both shows boast a main character who speaks faster and is smarter than everyone else in the room.) However, beneath the whimsy and crackling dialogue, there is a darkness and maturity to Sherlock that is absent from even the heaviest episode of Doctor Who. With Moffat overseeing Doctor Who for the time being, Gatiss is Sherlock’s primary showrunner. (Gatiss also appears on-screen in this first episode, but I can’t reveal the character’s name without spoiling one of the more pleasurable twists in the telling of this first episode.)

The foundation of any television or film adaptation of Conan Doyle’s work is the portrayal of the Holmes and Watson. For the story to work, their relationship has to ring true despite Holmes’ eccentricities. Modernized though the characters are, Sherlock demonstrates a striking reverence and affection for both of their leads. To pick just one example: there is a running gag where Holmes and Watson are mistaken for a gay couple: as Mrs. Hudson says sweetly to the newly arrived Dr. Watson as Holmes races from the room, “Always dashing about! My husband was just the same.” In anyone else’s hands, this could have been a little too cute for words, but here, it all leads up to a brief, and informatively awkward, interaction between Holmes and Watson which gives us new access to their internal lives. Sherlock may have a website and replaced his celebrated pipe with a nicotine patch (his famous “three-pipe problem” becoming a “three-patch problem”), and Watson may be blogging instead of keeping a diary, but there is never any doubt who each of them is.

In some cases, this transposition of a 19th century narrative into the 21st century works so well, it can leave you just a little bit dizzy. Sherlock’s Watson is a British army doctor, recently returned to London, physically and psychologically injured from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. In Conan Doyle’s first Holmes story, “A Study in Scarlet” published in 1887, we meet Dr. Watson returning home after being injured in an eerily similar unwinnable war in Afghanistan, this time the so-called Second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-80).

At its heart, this is a character-focused show, and the acting and writing of each character is spot on. The manic energy and intelligence of Cumberbatch’s Holmes balances nicely against Freeman’s moody and reflective Watson. In this first episode, we genuinely feel like witnesses to the beginning of a long and storied friendship, whether in their comfortable banter or the frustration Watson sometimes feels confronting Holmes’ scathing brilliance. If it seems that the mystery itself occasionally takes a back seat to characterization, it is difficult to see this as a fault when the characters are this much fun and so engaging. By the end of the episode, the nature of Holmes’ fascination with the murders was far more compelling than any resolution to the mystery could have been!

The very best re-imaginings allow novelty and creativity to coexist with reverence and even love of the source material. We need only look at Russell T. Davies’ 2005 reboot of Doctor Who to see how successful that recipe can be. Sherlock is clearly inspired by a deep love for Conan Doyle’s texts and characters. Indeed, for all its innovations, this new outing may in some ways be even be truer to the original than the renowned ITV series. The traditional image of Holmes—Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes and Robert Downey Jr. notwithstanding—is a pipe-smoking, middle-aged man in a Deer Stalker cap. But by all reckoning, Holmes is only 33 years old in Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” and Cumberbatch clocks in at a wizenly 34 years!

Rising effortlessly above more than a century of other Sherlocks—be it on stage, film, or TV—Sherlock quite simply makes for amazing television. It is a must-see for Holmes fans and non-fans alike. And for those on this side of the ocean who still mistakenly believe that BBC television is all Jane Austin costume dramas and low production values, Sherlock will probably be the most fun you’ll ever have discovering how wrong you are!

Sherlock’s second episode (“The Blind Banker”) airs next Sunday August 1, on BBC One, with the third and final episode (“The Great Game”) airing the following Sunday. In Canada, tune in to Showcase for the first epiosde on September 10. For our American readers, the series will be broadcast in full on PBS at the end of October.  If you want an early sneak peek, here is the BBC trailer for the series.

Mark your calendars: you will not be disappointed.