Saturday, January 18, 2014


It seems like such a crack-brained idea—adapting Sherlock Holmes to the modern era. Arthur Conan Doyle's eminent, erudite High Victorian consulting detective stranded in the frantic modern world of bullet trains, Tweeting (not to mention twerking), and Reality TV? Oh, please.

But the PBS series Sherlock made a believer out of me. Only three episodes are produced per season, but each episode is a complete 90-minute feature film, and, boy, are they fun! After a long hiatus, the third season begins this Sunday night (January 19) on PBS. Since I just caught up with the first two seasons last month, I am primed and ready!

The principal key to the show's success is, of course, Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role (his naturally fair hair dyed brown, and curled, because, seriously, update, reboot, or no, you can't have a blond Sherlock Holmes). Touchingly naive at times (mostly involving "normal" social concourse), with an intellect so restless, it's exhausting, the marvelous Cumberbatch plays Sherlock with every ounce of the character's famous wit, eccentricity, and ego intact, but it's all refracted in the prism of 21st Century life and culture.
Fancier toys: Sherlock's kitchen chem lab

And it all works. It's wicked, scary good how well it works!

This energetic, thoroughly modern Sherlock still resides at 221B Baker Street, with a motherly landlady downstairs called Mrs. Hudson. ("I am not your housekeeper!" she keeps reminding him.)

His keen interest in forensic science remains; he just has fancier toys to play with in the age of digital information. But it still takes his superior brain to assemble all the factoids, readouts and graphic imaging into a coherent deduction.
Vintage Holmes at work

Martin Freeman co-stars as Dr. John Watson, Holmes' friend and biographer, rescuing the character from the dufferdom rampant in so many past Holmes adaptations. A military man just back from the Afghanistan and in need of lodgings, Watson is as awed by Sherlock's brilliant mind as he is appalled by his manners. In the first episode, he appears with a cane and a limp, but he quickly loses both, revitalized by the dangerous adventures Sherlock leads him on.

(And, of course, in the digital age, Watson's stories about Holmes' cases aren't published in anything so fusty as a magazine; he posts them online on his blog.)

As roommates and co-investigators out about town together on a case, Watson has to keep calmly, but determinedly, deflecting assumptions that they are a gay couple. Watson enjoys women and is often surreptitiously lining up dates in the course of their adventures, but such assumptions roll right off Sherlock's back. As does the opinion (voiced by someone or other every couple of episodes) that he may be a virgin. Sherlock does not protest, one way or the other; idle speculation about his sex life simply does not register among the subjects that interest him.
Not that kind of couple
The filmmakers have fun with the Holmes canon. Every episode is named after a famous Conan Doyle story, with a twist. (A Study in Scarlet becomes A Study in Pink, featuring a pink cell phone as a key piece of evidence.)
Cumberbatch and Pulver: scandalous

 A Scandal in Belgravia (not Bohemia) introduces the formidable Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), but in this version, she's not a stage actress, but a high-priced dominatrix with an exclusive client list.

(Last season ended with Sherlock's spectacular, apparently fatal plunge off a high building—and yes, Reichenbach Falls are referenced—in broad daylight, in front of witnesses. But even though we (if not Watson) know Sherlock is not dead, the question of how the heck they'll explain it remains.)

The ever-harried Inspector Lestrade, the slippery Mycroft Holmes, the nefarious criminal mastermind, Moriarty (an unexpectedly boyish Andrew Scott, who's won two BAFTA Awards in the role), they're all here and waiting to be rediscovered by an eager public. (That's you!)

Showtime is 10 pm (after Downton Abbey) for the next three Sunday nights. You know where I'll be!

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