Friday, June 10, 2011

Television Review: BBC's "Sherlock"

Sherlock Holmes is one of those subjects where the concept has long outgrown the original source material. People who have never read one of Doyle's short stories still can pull up a detailed image of Holmes and Watson in the mind's eye. The fog-laden streets of Victorian London, the cool demeanor of the pipe-smoking detective, the flustered, bumbling, easily befuddled sidekick that is Watson, the magnifying glass used to hunt down those elusive clues, and the cries of "Elementary!"

Except that, well, most of these traits, considered the bedrock of Sherlockiana, really stem from the Bruce/Rathbone films of the 1940s. Doyle's original stories, on the other hand, featured a womanizing ladies man of a Watson, a cocaine-addicted Holmes who was ignorant of heliocentric theory, and a good deal of shoot-outs, boat chases, and fistfights to accompany the ever-important science of deduction. 

As a kid, I loved reading the Doyle stories, and in turn I became something of a Sherlock Holmes hipster, criticizing any Holmes adaptation that was not akin to the original books, and bitching about Watson used to be cool until Nigel Bruce came along and ruined everything. I flat out avoided the 2009 Robert Downey, Jr. film, even though it looked like fun, because of my dislike of turning my beloved Sherlock Holmes into some sort of farcical romp through a whitewashed London. The original Holmes fought against Germans, bigots and Mormons, among others, and if the film wasn't based on Doyle's stories, I wanted none of it. 

And while the heart of Sherlock Holmes stories is often ascribed to the soft glow of gas-lit lamps, or the clever unraveling of minute clues, the true magic of the stories is the relationship between Holmes and Watson. Doyle wrote a few stories without Watson, and they're not very good; as impressive as Holmes' deduction is, the fun comes from reading the interactions between the two - Holmes as an aloof, socially-awkward semi-jerk, Watson as the foil, inquiring over Holmes' deductions and strange habits, and providing his invaluable medical skills (as well as his pistol). It's exaggerating to say that Watson is the brawn to Holmes' brain, but the best stories always somehow managed to utilize the skills of both partners. 

So when I heard about the BBC re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes, (appropriately titled Sherlock), I was intrigued but skeptical. The good news was that the writers apparently considered the Holmes-Watson relationship to be the center of the stories. The news that made me wary was that the show was going to take place in present-day London, which I worried would be nothing but an annoying gimmick. 

Luckily, I was mistaken. Sherlock is a show that captures the essence of the Doyle stories, even while updating most of the details to their twenty-first century equivalents. These updates range from the annoyingly clever to the rewardingly clever. Doyle's Watson fought in South Africa; BBC's Watson fought in Afghanistan. Doyle's Watson published short stories; BBC's Watson is a blogger. Doyle's Holmes did cocaine; the BBC's Holmes puts on three nicotine patches at a time (which is also a way to sneak around the BBC rules about portraying tobacco use). 

But because the heart of both the Doyle stories and BBC's Sherlock is the Holmes-Watson relationship, they can get away with the change in scenery. And Holmes and Watson are both brilliantly cast. Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who captures the essence of the forensically-brilliant but socially-awkward detective. Cumberbatch's portrayal of Holmes simultaneously makes you want to follow him around and punch him in the face, which is about right. As Watson's character is less well-defined to the general public, Sherlock could have skimped on this, but Martin Freeman's portrayal is also extremely well-done. Freeman brings well-timed comic sensibilities to spice up the mysteries, while still providing the grounding needed for viewers to follow Holmes' wild trains of clues. And the series also pokes fun at the rumors that have circulated about Holmes and Watson; several times during the BBC's first three episodes, they're mistaken for being a gay couple, much to both characters' annoyance. 

Hard-core Sherlock buffs will also be delighted to see the stories' minor characters make an appearance - Inspector Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, Holmes' brother Mycroft, the Baker Street Irregulars and, of course, the nefarious Moriarty. The show is filled with little references to the original stories, even while they avoid being fenced in by the existent text - I spotted nods to A Study in Scarlet, The Five Orange Pips, and possibly A Scandal in Bohemia. But the mysteries are brand-new, appealing to old-school Sherlock buffs and new fans alike. 

The initial BBC series consisted of three ninety-minute episodes, and three more are on the way sometime this year. The best part of the series is the character development, and the witty back-and-forth between Holmes and Watson, but Sherlock doesn't slouch on the mystery element, either. While not as clever as Doyle at his best, the clues and red herrings shouldn't be ashamed to stand next to their predecessor, and they're dropped in such a way that you can play along at home (I finally solved a puzzle before Holmes in Episode 3, and I felt perhaps unjustifiably proud). 

The series is not perfect, and there's certainly room for improvement. While Sherlock nails the deduction scenes pretty well (and do a good job editing together various close-up shots to show Sherlock's train of thought), the action sequences don't hold together so great; I recall in particular a foot chase, and a fistfight with an assassin, both of which are a mess of quick cuts and close-ups that don't really work. The series does the mysteries so well that it's a shame to see them flop in the climax. And the series' second episode, in which Holmes and Watson unravel the crimes of a Chinese smuggling ring, contain a few too many slanty-eyed stereotypes for a show made in 2010. 

Still, what Sherlock gets right, it gets incredibly right, nailing both Sherlock's deductive methods, and the droll comedy of his friendship with Watson. And the present-day setting starts off as a gimmick, but is quickly integrated with the rest of the show. By the third episode, I wasn't even noticing the fact that Holmes was texting and Watson was blogging, because the characters were still the same as ever. So even if you're a Holmes Snob like me, Sherlock is worth checking out. And if you're a neophyte, I can recommend the series as a worthy introduction to the strange partnership of 221B Baker Street, if not to the Victorian-era fog that is so often associated with it.