Sherlock makes its American debut (as a Masterpiece presentation) tonight at 9:00 p.m. Eastern time on PBS.
Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes once summed up his methods this way: “Eliminate all other factors, and the one which remains must be the truth.” The producers of Sherlock—an excellent new Holmes adaptation set in the present day—take a similarly deductive approach to their two lead characters. They pointedly show us what is not true about their version of Holmes and Dr. Watson, and only then do we start to see who they are.
The baggage of preconceptions for a new Sherlock Holmes fiction is heavy—these characters have been reinterpreted countless times, to the point of caricature. So at first, Sherlock stumbles over itself as it tries to assure us that this is not the old Holmes. It’s Sherlock. As portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch (“the only man to play Sherlock Holmes with an even stupider name,” according to co-creator Steven Moffat), Sherlock is not a Victorian gentleman in a deerstalker cap. He’s not a cocaine addict; he wears nicotine patches. He doesn’t publish essays; he maintains a website. And no, he and Watson aren’t a couple (not that they ever were), although people will talk.
In the première, Sherlock frequently tends toward an overbearing tone that screams, “don’t adjust your set, it’s really Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century!” The première opens with a therapist encouraging Afghanistan vet John Watson (Martin Freeman) to update his blog, for Pete's sake. And oh, by the way, he has post-traumatic stress disorder, surely the most au courant affliction the writers could have stricken him with.
Technology abounds. One minor character inexplicably spends almost all of her screen time on her Blackberry. It deadens a couple of potentially charged exchanges she has with Freeman, all so that Sherlock could remind us, hey, texting! That’s a thing that people do these days!
The anxious push to establish Sherlock as the new, young, energetic Holmes infects the performances at times. Cumberbatch practically breaks into a Mary Poppins musical number when he learns that a bizarre rash of suicides has increased its death toll to four. And as Freeman witnesses his new friend’s deductive idiosyncrasies, he vacillates oddly between annoyance and outright fanboy-ism.
As it works through the giddy first-episode eagerness, though, the show displays a more enduring patience to build its world on a satisfying multi-episode arc. The producers start playing with viewers’ expectations rather than simply defying them. Early in “A Study In Pink,” Watson has a tense encounter with a man who identifies himself only as Sherlock’s so-called “archenemy.” Anyone who’s passingly acquainted with Holmes mythology knows who the writers are getting at, but they wait until the episode’s post-climactic final minutes to deliver the payoff—a moment that sets up further intrigue for the rest of Sherlock’s three-episode season.
The rare sing-songy misstep aside, Cumberbatch is convincing from the first as the cold, manipulative, yet endearing “consulting detective.” With his lean pork-chop cheekbones and dark eyes, he could almost pass as a young Jeremy Brett, the actor who crafted the definitive Holmes on 1980s British TV. Like Brett, Cumberbatch brings a spirited physicality to the role, moving sharply around the frame with an air of intense, quiet-please-master-at-work focus. (Superb costume design, in particular Cumberbatch’s swooping, charcoal-gray coat, helps drive home the detective’s dashing aura.)
Yet Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is more playful than Brett’s Holmes, and while he describes himself as a “high-functioning sociopath,” he can’t hide traces of heartfelt affection for his new flatmate—or, if not affection, at least relief to have a companion who will let Sherlock give voice to his machinations.
It’s no surprise that, like everything Martin Freeman does, his take on Dr. Watson is eminently watchable. Freeman’s clipped comic rhythm is as delightful as ever. The unexpected revelation is that he manages to bring a fresh strain of darkness both to his own persona and to the character of Watson. It’s not a dumbed-down TV version of PTSD flashbacks that haunt him, as the opening scene suggests (in something of a misdirect). Rather, Freeman’s Watson is uncomfortably aware that on a cruder level, he shares Sherlock’s interest in the shadier side of human nature.
Because of the heavy lifting that “A Study In Pink” does to break down Holmes and build up Sherlock, the première is the weakest entry of this initial batch. An intriguing case—a “murderer” who works by inducing perfectly happy people to commit suicide—culminates in an overwrought denouement that showcases Sherlock’s all-consuming need to solve the puzzle before him. (The vibe will feel familiar to House viewers.)
The camerawork is lively, and Sherlock often uses modern video effects to illustrate Sherlock’s thought process, along the lines of A Beautiful Mind. The flashy visuals do sometimes come on too strong in “A Study In Pink.” One chase scene, which weaves throughout the roads of London, is intercut with jittery shots of road signs. The sequence just doesn’t work; the “ONE WAY” and “NO TURN” images are too cartoony and on-the-nose. But failure is the price of experimentation, and it’s better for Sherlock to work with a sense of creative freedom than to feel constrained by its legendary source material.
That’s the biggest appeal of Sherlock: It knows when to be bold. The show is honest to Arthur Conan Doyle’s concept of adventure through reason, but producers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat are confident that Doyle's basic construct can thrive in a post-Bourne pop-cultural realm. Of course, the “Holmes 2010” premise could easily be the foundation of a sorry mess. Gatiss and Moffat provide an artful guiding hand, though, and the result is a smart, focused series that improves on itself in each episode of its woefully short first season.