For the last decade, some of the best television in America has been… made in Britain, no small amount of that from the mind of Steven Moffat, who gave us the British Coupling (quite good), as well as the pilot for the American version (quite dreadful, courtesy of network meddling), and also managed to successfully reboot Doctor Who. This is probably another lesson that American producers should take from their British counterparts: how to “reboot” or “reimagine” a series without completely ruining it. Tim Burton, I’m looking at you. Along with co-creator Mark Gatiss (League of Gentlemen), Moffat gets this one very, very right.
At first glance, the premise of “Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson in the 21st Century” does seem cringe-worthy, and in the wrong hands it could have been a disaster. Fortunately, Moffat’s and Gattiss’s hands are quite capable, and Series 2 kicks off with a bang. Well, a bomb, a boff, a bang and a bonk, in that order. I have to admit to not having seen Series 1 before this, but about ten minutes into the first episode of Series 2 I was absolutely hooked. Yes, it’s Sherlock in the world of the internet, smart phones, and blogs – but all of the technology just plays into the sleuth’s powers of deduction and intellect and, in a way, make his emotional detachment seem less sad and weird than it may have been in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original.
Of course, any embodiment of Holmes and Watson is only as good as its cast, and in the improbably named Benedict Cumberbatch (War Horse) and normally named Martin Freeman (the upcoming The Hobbit), we have a Holmes and Watson to rival the original models of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Their performances and relationship are spot-on, with a bit of a modern twist when it’s hinted at that Watson may have more than just a friendly interest in Holmes. Of course, Cumberbatch’s Holmes gives the impression that he would be emotionally unavailable to anyone, regardless of respective sexual orientations, and Cumberbatch exudes all of Holmes’s intellect, detachment, and general bad-assedness before he opens his mouth to speak in a self-assured, and assuring, baritone. Robert Downey’s histrionic efforts aside in Guy Ritchie’s period testerone-fest take on the subject, Cumberbatch is the first Holmes who is sexy as well as smart, and the actor pulls off both effortlessly.
Watson’s character has always been problematic, and – at least on film – has always differed somewhat from Doyle’s original, the only exception being Jude Law’s turn in Ritchie’s films. Dr. Watson was the narrator of the original stories, and while he was no intellectual match for Holmes, he wasn’t an idiot either, quite frequently offering up his own good advice on a case. He was also no withering flower – the original Watson was a medical doctor and a wounded war veteran. Of course, the vagaries of history have made it possible for the original Watson and Sherlock’s update to both be veterans of wars in Afghanistan, although Freeman’s Watson may perhaps be a bit shell-shocked. He’s still quite a few steps up from Nigel Bruce’s somewhat inept and bumbling take in the original film adaptations. Plus he most likely has a thing for Sherlock, and is called out for it by dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver, True Blood) in a very witty scene in which she shows that her powers of deductive reasoning are equal to the titular detective’s, if not somewhat more titular.
Of course, the performances wouldn’t matter without the writing to support them, but you should have deduced by now that the writing is spectacular, with intricate plotting, witty dialogue loaded with subtext, and brisk pacing that keeps the action moving with an inevitability in each episode. These are abetted by stellar production values and the use of some nice tricks that add to everything rather than call attention to themselves, one of the most effective being onscreen text highlighting the subtleties that Holmes notices on people – such as “shined shoes, date tonight” when glancing at Watson’s feet, although Holmes may have called this one incorrectly.
While not for kids (parents be warned), this series does have something for every adult fan. If you’re a die-hard Holmes fanatic, you will not be put off by the updates, as everything is true to the original – and all three Series 2 episodes are based on some of Doyle’s most famous tales. If you’re not a Holmes fan, this show will probably make you one. If you’re a Doctor Who fan, you’ll love it from frame one. And, if you just like entertaining television with complex, well-defined characters, interesting plots, great writing and production values, then you’ll want to add this one to your DVR list. Series 2 also ends with an episode based on Doyle’s The Final Problem, in which he killed off his detective in what may have been literally the original cliffhanger. We don’t exactly have the Reichenbach Falls here, but we do have a cliffhanger.
If there’s one thing to find fault for with Sherlock, it’s that the British idea of a series (what we call a season) just isn’t long enough to be fully satisfying. This one is even shorter than most with only three ninety-minute episodes, and that’s it. On the other hand, those four and a half hours are bound to be far more satisfying than an entire 24 episode run of most current American TV dramas. If you saw Series 1, you already know that. If you haven’t, you have time to catch up before Series 2 makes its American debut on Masterpiece on PBS starting Sunday, May 6.