“You guys are the first people in the US to see Sherlock… Legitimately.”
That’s how the screening was introduced. Sherlock, the modern take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes that takes place in present day London, debuted on the BBC across the pond last July to wide acclaim and popularity. Some US viewers have had the opportunity to acquire episodes of this miniseries via other means, but officially, the screening at New York Comic-Con was the first time it’s being shown in this country. It will air on PBS later this month as part of their Masterpiece Mystery! series.
I’ve been a pretty big fan of Sherlock Holmes, having read most of Conan Doyle’s tales of the quirky detective. For decades, we’ve seen many interpretations of the character brought to the screen. Most recently, of course, in Guy Ritchie’s boisterous interpretation, starring Robert Downey, Jr and Jude Law. There’s this prevailing idea that Sherlock Holmes is somehow synonymous with Victorian England, as his image made iconic by the pipe-and-deerstalker-hat look of Basil Rathbone’s portrayal. Ditto for Watson and his bowler hat and the two’s archaically quaint Britishisms. It’s important for me to always maintain that such images are, it has to be said, behind the times. If only because at the time of its writing, Conan Doyle intended for Holmes to be leaps ahead of his contemporaries, a man born far too early in history.
I’m not suggesting that a modernization is necessary to make him work, but it is his intellect and personality that define him, rather than his period setting. It’s for this reason that I consider the best adaptations to be ones that simply incorporate the qualities that make him a distinct and fascinating character, even if it’s at the cost of making him someone from a different profession (House) or species (The Great Mouse Detective).
The idea of bringing Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—as well as various other aspects of the Sherlock mythology—to the modern world reeks of novelty at first, but the people behind the project, at least, inspire confidence. Doctor Who heavies Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss came up with the concept together. It's a trilogy of 90-minute movies that essentially act as the first season. The first episode, “A Study in Pink,” which was the episode screened, was written by Moffat and directed by Gangster No. 1’s Paul McGuigan.
The title is an obvious reference to the first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet. “Pink” throws some direct references to it with the two pills and the word "RACHE" left behind at the scene of the crime, but it's a mostly new mystery: a string of suicides gripping London, and Sherlock being the one who believes it to be the work of a serial killer.
Moffat couldn't resist, of course, in exploring some modern spins on Holmes' odder sides. Holmes' affinity for smoking grossly large amounts of tobacco has been replaced with the more social-conscious use of multiple nicotine patches (leading to an update of his classic "three-pipe problem" zinger). This Holmes is also partial to texting as his main form of communication and uses the Internet in supporting his hypothesis. At first, this does seem to be a forcing of the inclusion of modern tools, but really, should Sherlock Holmes today not be this way? Conan Doyle's Holmes was always experimenting and chasing more modern methods to work into his arsenal. It makes perfect sense for his 21st century self to be a techie.
As for his intellect, how do you visualize the way someone thinks faster than everyone else? In the Sherlock Holmes movie, Guy Ritchie does slow-motion flash-forwards, narrated in voiceover by Holmes explaining how he thinks. Not so interesting. McGuigan invites the audience to play along by flashing facts on screen as Holmes observes them, then the conclusion. Holmes examines a wedding ring, the word "DIRTY" appears; he looks at the inside, "CLEAN" appears. He concludes: "SERIAL ADULTERER." See if you know why before he explains the process to Watson and Lestrade.
Benedict Cumberbatch is just awesome as Sherlock, pulling off a performance that is a walking contradiction. His Sherlock is cold and impersonal, yet charismatic and likable. He spouts genius out of his mouth with complete matured assurance, yet hops and slouches like a goofy kid. In Victorian era, a kook like Holmes is dismissed as a bohemian, but in a modern context, he's called many things and denies none. A freak, a homosexual, getting off on deaths. In response to a forensics detective calling him a psychopath, he snap back, "I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research."
Martin Freeman plays Dr. John Watson with a measure of toughness, the character being a psychologically afflicted wounded soldier just back from Afghanistan, a trait of the original Watson that's ported very easily to the present for obvious reasons. It's entirely too easy to play Watson as a bemused sidekick taking a backseat to Holmes' escapades, but Sherlock stays true to the source material by making Watson an active main character and the audience surrogate, a capable and interesting character who just can't help himself but to follow Sherlock out of curiosity and a personal rush.
The clever whodunit keeps us interested, but it's the dynamic between them—perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who's seen Doctor Who—that will make us want more. Moffat's dialogue is sharply funny and full of snark, which makes the near-instantaneous rapport between Holmes and Watson believable. They're drawn to each other. The first meeting is taken right out of A Study in Scarlet, but as a neat nod to the fans, the rather superflous analysis of Watson's brother's pocketwatch from A Sign of Four is added here (but as a cell phone). This seems to be how Moffat approaches his take on these characters. Rather than simply adapting, or adding another chapter as the Ritchie movie did, he snatches the best bits from the books and organically incorporates them into original stories, and it works. I have to admit that despite not being too worried about how it's going to work, I was still surprised by just how well it works. It's fast, it's funny, it's very contemporary, but it's cerebral and distinguishably Sherlock.
The US broadcast premiere of Sherlock, starting with "A Study in Pink," will be October 24 on PBS, with the remaining two episodes airing on the subsequent Sundays. They'll also be available for streaming online the day after broadcast.