TERRY GROSS, host:

This weekend the PBS anthology series "Masterpiece Mystery" imports the first of three weekly TV episodes featuring the detective identified by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most portrayed movie character. The character, based on the short stories and novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is Sherlock Holmes. The new TV series is simply called "Sherlock."

Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI: 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, 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 "Sherlock," beginning this Thursday on a "Masterpiece Mystery" on PBS, 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 an episode of CSI. And why not? This guy was the original one-man crime lab.

Sherlock 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's in therapy and who's just returned from action in Afghanistan or Iraq. It may sound like an easy update, but in "A Study in Scarlet," the 1887 story in which the two men 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 "CSI" zooming and swooshing.

In this scene, Holmes and Watson are riding to a crime scene when Watson demands some answers from his baffling new acquaintance.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Sherlock")

Mr. MARTIN FREEMAN (Actor): (as Dr. Watson) Who are you? What do you do?

Mr. BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH (Actor): (as Sherlock Holmes) What do you think?

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) I'd say private detective...

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) But...

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) But police don't go to private detectives.

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) I'm a consulting detective. The only one in the world. I invented the job.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) What does that mean?

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) It means when the police are out of their depth, which is always, they consult me.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) The police don't consult amateurs.

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) When I met you for the first time yesterday, I said Afghanistan or Iraq, you looked surprised.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) Yes, how did you know?

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) I didnt know, I saw.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) (Unintelligible) says military. Your conversation as you entered the room...

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) (Unintelligible)

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: (as Sherlock Holmes) ...said (unintelligible) army doctor, obvious. The face had turned (unintelligible) It looks really bad when you walk, but don't ask for a chair when you stand, like youve forgotten about it. (Unintelligible) partly psychosomatic. That says the original circumstances of the injury were traumatic, wounded in action then - wounded in action sometime in Afghanistan or Iraq.

Mr. FREEMAN: (as Dr. Watson) You said I had a therapist.

Mr. CUMBERBATCH: You have a psychosomatic limp. Of course you've got a therapist.

BIANCULLI: 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 seven 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. The three stories, new spins on old themes, are about murders disguised as suicides, a deadly smuggling ring, and a mad bomber. They're fast-paced and surprising and truly exciting, and very 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 original stories know that already - but even if you're not familiar with the old Sherlock Holmes adventures, you'll love this new "Sherlock" series. However, if you are familiar with them, chances are you'll love this new "Sherlock" even more.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of TVWorthwatching.com and he teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. His book, "Dangerously Funny: The Uncensored Story of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," has been published in paperback.

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