One of the most universal characters in literary history is Sherlock Homes. Even if you have never read any of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, you know who Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson are. He is the precursor of modern day characters like Dr. Greg House (House), Gil Grissom (CSI) and Patrick Jane (The Mentalist). He’s been the subject of two recent films starring Robert Downey, Jr. He is part of a popular phrase (“No sh*t, Sherlock”). And am I the only person who remembers this song?
Being so ubiquitous, it wouldn’t be surprising if we suffered from a little “Sherlock Holmes syndrome.” The characters and the stories could be played out at this point.
However, the BBC series Sherlock manages to reimagine the character in a new and entertaining way, without betraying his literary heritage. Leave it to the Brits.
Sherlock takes Doyle’s characters and brings them into modern times. While Holmes still possesses an uncanny skill for observation and is an odd genius, this incarnation also knows how to use the internet and has a cell phone. Watson has a blog where he writes up their investigations. But for all these nods to modern day London, the spirit and essence of the series is from the original works. While many reboots fail or are unsatisfactory because they change too much, Sherlock succeeds because it changes only what it has to in order to make the series and characters seem fresh.
The casting for Sherlock is definitely one of its strengths. As our modern day Holmes, Benedict Cumberbatch gives a pitch perfect performance. Homes may be a brilliant, but he isn’t the easiest person to spend a lot of time with. He has his quirks and is generally aloof and cold. He doesn’t really understand how to properly interact with other people and has a complicated relationship with his brother Mycroft. Martin Freeman (Tim on the UK version of The Office) plays Holmes long suffering friend Watson with just the right mixture of annoyance and affection for the eccentric sleuth. Together they make one of the great on-screen duos; their banter is one of the best things about the series. The dialogue is witty and zippy as the debate the solutions to the various cases that they are faced with.
It’s been a while since I’ve read any of the Doyle stories, so I can’t speak to how faithful the mysteries as presented are to the original cases. My understanding is that the originals serve as inspiration, but that changes have been made either for creative purposes or the update them. Hard core fans of Holmes would know and recognize alterations, but I found them all to be compelling and interesting as presented.
Each season of Sherlock is comprised of three 90 minutes episodes which really are more like mini-movies. The cases are mostly isolated, but there are some threads that run throughout the series, like Holmes’ mysterious arch nemesis Mortality. And while I don’t think it is necessary to watch season one before plunging into season two, I do think it worth the time and will increase your appreciation of the character development. You also don’t have to possess a strong working knowledge of Holmes and company to enjoy the series. The actors and writers do all the heavy lifting in crafting characters and situations that stand on their own.
I’ve seen two of the three episodes of season 2 and the series is just as fun and enjoyable as I remembered it. I preferred the first episode to the second, as the latter (based on the story The Hounds of Baskervilles) is a little too X-Files-y for my personal taste. I’ll be sorry when I have devoured the last episode and have to patiently wait for season 3 to be filmed.
There are a plethora of mystery and crime shows on TV that are competing for your attention. Sherlock manages to skillfully resurrect a 125 old character and demonstrates why he is still the most captivating character of them all.
Sherlock debuts Sunday night on PBS as part of their Masterpiece: Mystery series. Season one of Sherlock is available on DVD and Netflix streaming. Some PBS affiliates are also running a marathon before the season two debut. Check your local listings.