A Modern 'Sherlock' Is More Than Elementary

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman i i

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, left) and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) race through the streets of London in a gritty new adaptation of the classic detective stories. hide caption

itoggle caption
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman

Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, left) and Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) race through the streets of London in a gritty new adaptation of the classic detective stories.

Before I previewed the three installments of the new Sherlock TV series, I wasn't convinced we needed another adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Last year's movie version featured a solid star turn by Robert Downey Jr., but was much too overblown, underwritten and entirely unmemorable. Besides, we already have Hugh Laurie as television's House, who's basically Sherlock Holmes as a doctor — and with a limp. Except that instead of one Dr. Watson as his companion and assistant, House has a whole team. And before solving his case each week with a flash of brilliant diagnosis, House always gets it wrong a few times — something Sherlock Holmes would never do.

But the new British import, beginning Oct. 24 on the PBS showcase Masterpiece Mystery, gets everything right. It's a modern-day version, with storytelling approaches to match. Sometimes, when Sherlock is explaining the reasoning behind his astounding powers of observation, the camera zooms in tight on the various clues, with whooshy sound effects, just like on an episode of CSI. And why not? This guy was the original one-man crime lab.

Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a young actor who has a great-sounding name of his own. John Watson, M.D. is played by Martin Freeman, the co-star of the original British version of The Office, and the series is co-created, with obvious passion for the original stories, by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, who last worked together on Doctor Who.

That may sound like an odd team, but it's actually a great fit. Doctor Who, like Sherlock Holmes, is worlds smarter than everyone around him and goes about his adventures with a loyal companion in tow. And while Doctor Who is an alien, Sherlock only feels like one.

This new Sherlock series definitely gets all that — and the changes it makes, in telling new stories and reshaping the characters, are as smart as the elements it retains. When Sherlock first meets Dr. Watson, for example, he instantly sizes him up as a war veteran who is in therapy and who has just returned from action in Afghanistan or Iraq. It may sound like an easy update — but in fact in A Study in Scarlet, the 1887 story in which the two men first met, Watson had just returned from Afghanistan. And in this first TV adventure, called A Study in Pink, Watson's demand for Holmes to reveal himself, and his tricks, is just as clever and delightful — even with all the zooming and swooshing.

This new version isn't just good. It's terrific, and the changes bringing the characters into modern-day London are inspired. Sherlock no longer injects himself with a 7 percent solution of cocaine to get a buzz when he's bored or baffled. Now he slaps nicotine patches on his arm. (Lots of them.) And this new Sherlock Holmes carries a cell phone — but, like the anti-social misfit that he is, he much prefers to text than to talk.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes i i

Cumberbatch plays a modernized Holmes who carries a cell phone and gets his buzz from nicotine patches. Hartswood Films/BBC for MASTERPIECE hide caption

itoggle caption Hartswood Films/BBC for MASTERPIECE
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes

Cumberbatch plays a modernized Holmes who carries a cell phone and gets his buzz from nicotine patches.

Hartswood Films/BBC for MASTERPIECE

The three stories, all new spins on old themes, are about a deadly smuggling ring, a mad bomber and murders disguised as suicides. They're fast-paced and surprising and truly exciting, as well as quite well-acted.

That goes for the supporting cast as well. Rupert Graves plays Inspector Lestrade — and the evil Professor Moriarty is here, too. But I can't tell you where, or who plays him, without spoiling some of the fun. Because Moriarty loves disguises, and loves to hide in plain sight.

Readers of the old stories know that already — but even if you're not familiar with the old Sherlock Holmes adventures, you'll love this new Sherlock series. If you are familiar with them, chances are you'll love this new Sherlock even more.

David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthWatching.com and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: