One of the pleasures of watching BBC TVs 2010/2012 show “Sherlock” is the sly, tongue in cheek references it makes to the canon of Sherlock Holmes; another is the sheer length of each episode…ninety minutes per; and a third is the precise casting of the eponymous lead and the Doctor. About the only thing I grumble about in this well-written, well-acted TV series is the fact that the Brits don’t seem to understand that a season should not be three episodes a year – even Life on Mars and its follow up had more. And for someone as iconic as the Baker Street ‘tec, with multitudinous adventures both direct or merely alluded-to…well, there’s no shortage of material here.
But move beyond these issues, watch the show, and tell me that if you have even the slightest interest in Holmesia, that this is not a brilliant recapturing of the spirit of the famous consulting detective and his faithful sidekick. Updated for the modern world, complete with smartphones and texting instead of hand-delivered notes, or London cabs instead of hansoms, delivering sly winks at the iconography at every turn, it’s a treat for anyone who has worked his way through the literary Conan-Doyle canon. I adore this kind of clever construction.
The series opener is a good example of what I mean, down to the title itself: “A Study in Pink.” Watson, recently discharged from the army after being wounded in Afghanistan (the show nudges the ribs in having Watson limp, yet stating his wound was actually in the shoulder – the wound alternated in Doyle’s stories too) is looking for digs, and is introduced to Holmes by an old friend. It’s in the first meeting and the subsequent conversations that you see the impact that a modern sensibility has on the show: Holmes’s rapid fire delivery, the decision to show his deductions as little texts on screen, his lanky uncoordinated movements and his barely concealed disdain for the lesser mortals who are not quite as sharp as he is. Benedict Cumberbatch, now better known in 2013 as Khan from the second Star Trek reboot (good acting and a workmanlike effort, but one soon to be forgotten…Montalban has a lock on the character, sorry), to my mind made his bones here as an actor to watch even after his work on “Atonement” – observe the body language, the well-modulated voice, the expressions: they’re all perfect for the persona that, over hundreds of films and shows, has taken residence in our collective imaginations.
The writers seem to have a lot of fun upending expectations. The choice of taking the pill from the “A Study in Scarlet” novella, one deadly one harmless, is somewhat reversed here, having a different motivation; the word “Rache” opined by Lestrade in the book as being “Rachel” and dismissed by Holmes as being German for revenge, is here actually referring to a Rachel. Holmes hates the deerstalker hat made iconic in Sidney Paget’s Strand illustrations. Even Moriarty’s plot to discredit Holmes by pretending innocence and that it’s all Holmes’s imagination to create an uber-villain, has echoes of Nicolas Meyer’s “Seven Percent Solution” novel and film (the phrase is referenced several times). That’s what I mean about the show being clever: it’s got clues and references cheerfully scattered all around it. The blog Watson keeps has playful takes on Holmes’s canonical adventures….I particularly liked “The Speckled Blonde” and “The Six Thatchers”, and the reference to the five pips and to Spock (who may be a relative, if you believe Star Trek VI)
The relative quality of various episodes has a hard time keeping up. I thought “A Scandal in Belgravia” was well put together – the cat and mouse game Holmes and Irene Adler play with modern technology, as well as their overt and covert relationship were wonderful to watch (although the last five minutes is not actually necessary). In others: Mycroft is well cast, with delicious dialogue of his own; the ongoing effort of Watson to enter into a romantic relationship is one of the show’s low key humourous delights, as is the running gag of Watson trying to tell everyone he and Holmes are not gay. And I was intrigued with – how could I not mention the arch-enemy? – the take on Moriarty, who is seen as an evil genius, yes, but less of the old school, genteel, Brit steel, and more of an American warped-genius psycho mentality. Maybe it was necessary to take the good doctor in a different direction, but perhaps for a character as well known as this one, veering off course might not have been the best way to go (he is neither referred to, nor really gives the impression, of being the “Napoleon of crime”). However, that’s minor…you kind of have to enjoy the spectacle of clever people facing off against each other in a battle of wits each hoping to be a step ahead of the other.
I’ve long believed that Spock, Sheldon Cooper and House MD (the last probably more clearly than any) are incarnations of the concept of the driven genius so well exemplified by Holmes. All shy away from, if not actually despise, interpersonal relationships; all are genius-level professionals lacking external interests outside their area of focus; they are always the smartest people in the room, running rings around the merely average intellects surrounding them. I could mention Hercule Poirot, Lord Peter Whimsey, Adam Dalgleish, or even the many other smart detectives shown on American television (CSI springs to mind), but it’s the coldness and haughty, sneering demeanours covering a certain well-concealed, rarely-revealed (and even more rarely acknowledged) humanity that sets the detective, the Vulcan, the physicist and the doctor apart.
At end, though it’s all about Holmes’s genius and Watson’s everyman persona, and their relationship. I’ll be the first to accept that the season two closer handles their friendship awkwardly at best (in contrast, the conclusion of A Study in Pink was written just perfectly). I enjoyed Martin Freeman’s Watson expressing his ongoing exasperation with Holmes’s superiority complex (I was reminded of the way Leonard and the boys always groan “Nooo” whenever Penny asks Sheldon a question they know will result in a long winded and confusing answer), and attention should be paid to the interaction between Holmes and the shy pathologist Molly, to say nothing of his relationship with Mrs. Hudson (“Unthinkable. If she leaves, England will fall”) and even Lestrade, who grudgingly respects him. Speaking for myself, the various conversations between and with the doctor and the detective remain the heart and soul of the show, as they were in the books and all the other films. The cases are just convenient backdrop and set decoration for that.
These matters showcase something I’ve always felt: a show’s writing is the key, and it must be about more than just explosions, chases, murders and everything tied up in a bow at the end. To take up residence in our imaginations, a film or a show must have heart, must involve us in the characters, their inner lives and turmoils, make us feel for them, care for them, cheer for them. Sherlock may be uneven at times, but it’s overall quality of writing, direction, dialogue, music, production design and characterization is a cut above the ordinary, and I look forward to see what the Brits come up with for the world’s foremost consulting detective in the next three episodes. After all, as even Conan-Doyle found out, you just can’t keep the good detective dead forever.