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'Sherlock' Review: A Very Enjoyable Holmes Fights Crime in Modern London

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 22nd 2010 12:45PM
In Steven Moffat's 'Sherlock' (Sunday, PBS; check local listings) the legendary London detective gets a witty, wise, even thrilling update.

This series does what you'd want a modern-day Sherlock Holmes series to do: It acknowledges that he would use technology to assist him in his prodigious feats of deduction, yet it stays true to the characters that Arthur Conan Doyle created.

But don't assume this 'Sherlock,' which stars Benedict Cumberbatch and future Hobbit Martin Freeman, is just for mystery fans or Holmes enthusiasts.

The 'Sherlock' TV movies that air in the Masterpiece Mystery series on the next three Sundays are ripping yarns that almost anyone could enjoy. Moffat's 'Doctor Who' exhibits a similar level of energy, and, like that show, 'Sherlock' is an enjoyably clever mixture of character drama and adventure tale.

'Sherlock' does get a tiny bit overheated and melodramatic now and then; if it has one (easily overlooked) fault, it can get a bit over-caffeinated in an effort to prove that it is not your father's stodgy Holmes' adaptation. On the other hand, this sprightly trio of TV movies are more rigorous and well-written than the rather sloppy, scattershot 2009 film adaptation starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

That movie gave you the chance to watch excellent actors at work, but 'Sherlock' supplies that and taut storytelling as well. Still, just as Gregory House (a very Holmesian character) wouldn't work without Hugh Laurie giving the cranky doctor layers upon layers, 'Sherlock's' attempt to bring us a blogging, smartphone-savvy detective would fail if the casting was off. Thankfully, it isn't. The performances by Benedict Cumberbatch as the famous sleuth and Martin Freeman as his partner are engaging from the opening frame.

Even when Holmes is staring into space or uttering one-word pronouncements ("Dull!"), Cumberbatch effortlessly makes Holmes a riveting presence. It's as if Holmes has to constantly strive to keep himself in check: It's not easy for him to be patient with the slow brains of normal people. As for social conventions like chit-chat, flattery and white lies, forget it.

'You're an idiot," he casually tells Watson at one point. Seeing his partner's reaction, Holmes adds, "No, no, no, don't be like that. Practically everyone is."

Cumberbatch's vigor and 'Sherlock's' energetic pace are grounded by Martin Freeman's thoughtful, wonderful performance as Watson. Then again, Freeman is so good in everything he does (including his great work as Tim on the UK version of 'The Office') that I very much look forward to what he'll do in Peter Jackson's upcoming 'Hobbit' films. The actor has an everyman quality and yet an elusive charisma as well: There's a steely core to his Watson that makes him much more than just a foil to a brilliant crime-solver.

This Watson, like the one in Conan Doyle's stories, is a doctor/soldier who was wounded in Afghanistan; his emotional scars stand in contrast to Sherlock's almost naive believe in the power of the intellect. Sherlock may be condescending, rude and presumptuous, but he's also brilliant and the instigator of many complicated adventures. Watson is taken aback by the habits and methods of his new roommate, but he is soon, Freeman subtly demonstrates, having the time of his life.

Moffat does like his trickster characters; his Doctor and this Sherlock have a lot in common and there's a similar cheeky wit at work in both series. And though technology and the Internet play their roles in the investigations, they never take over the narrative and Moffat and fellow writer Mark Gatiss have taken pains to pay tribute to details from Conan Doyle stories (one mystery is deemed a "three-patch problem" -- this detective resorts to nicotine patches rather than pipes).

Sherlock is, according to the detective himself, a "high-functioning sociopath," but it's never as simple as that. Still, is the thrill of the chase more important than adhering to a moral code? That question is explored in a dramatically compelling way in Sunday's outing, and it's threaded nicely throughout all three films. But the reason the character endures is because the answers to that question can be endlessly discussed.

Two notes: 'Sherlock' will be available online on the Masterpiece Mystery site from Oct. 25-Dec. 7. And for more excellent British crime drama, check out 'Luther' and 'Law & Order: UK,' both of which air on BBC America.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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8 Comments

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Mo Ryan

Tausif, wow, that's a fabulous idea -- Masterpiece: Science Fiction. Hope that happens someday!

And yeah, that second photo does look like a picture from Doctor Who! Heh.

October 25 2010 at 9:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
JohnV

I thoroughly enjoyed the first showing of "Sherlock." I love how they have brought it into the 21st century and made it fresh with enough of a homage to the original.

The two actors paired as Sherlock and Watson are a much better fit than Downey/Law, IMHO Jude Law should be Holmes and Downey should be Watson.

Holmes is one of my all-time favorite characters and I look forward to any and all versions of his adventures, modern or traditional.

October 25 2010 at 1:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tausif Khan

Mo when I saw your second screen shot on this page The Doctor Who theme music went off in my brain. And am I mistaken or is Cumberbatch holding a sonic screwdriver in his right hand (joke)?

Also, I hope in the future that PBS considers creating a Masterpiece: Science Fiction section of its Masterpiece brand.

October 23 2010 at 2:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mo Ryan

Yeah, ex-pat Ulsterman, I get what you're saying about the middle episode. The stuff with the Asian characters did verge on melodramatic stereotypes. Agreed there.

Yes, I love the unspoken idea that Holmes keeps Watson around as his moral compass -- because it's possible that Holmes doesn't always have one...

October 22 2010 at 3:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Mo Ryan's comment
Craig Ranapia

I take your point, but at least 'Sherlock' is self-aware of it and it's hardly avoidable in the source material. It's pretty hard not to see Conan Doyle's original creation as a misogynist with all the casual and unreflecting prejudices of someone of his time and upper-middle class background.

October 23 2010 at 3:54 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Ex-pat Ulsterman

This is a really fun series, although the middle episode isn't nearly as strong as the other two, as well as being a bit racist.

The question of the chase vs a moral code is one issue, but there's also that of intellect vs emotion. Some of the characters have such a huge perspective that they realise the insignificance of life. It's summed up by a moment where one character says to another, "People have died," only to get the response, "That's what people DO!" The fact that that answer could have come from the mouth of any of at least three characters is what makes the series as a whole pretty compelling and lends much more importance to Watson's role in Sherlock's life.

October 22 2010 at 1:49 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Beaky

This show is amazing. I'm ridiculously excited for more people to get to see it. :)

October 22 2010 at 1:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Phdelicious

Personally I find Sherlock much more engaging than Moff's Doctor (both character and series). Regardless, I agree that this is a show well worth watching, whether or not you consider yourself a Holmes fan.

October 22 2010 at 1:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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