Quick: When I tell you that there's a special miniseries about Sherlock Holmes currently airing on PBS, what comes to mind? Old, dusty men with mustaches and magnifying glasses? The feeling of a school play that's been taped? Lots of blustery British dialogue?
The BBC miniseries Sherlock is not your British grandfather's Sherlock Holmes. Far from it: It's slick, sexy, and completely compelling. The three 90-minute movies are set in London in 2010, so the famous "consulting detective" is constantly using his Blackberry, GPS, and the internet to make his famous deductions—and watching him figure out that a man is an alcoholic by analyzing the scratches on the sot's iPod is absolutely delightful. The cases are brand-new too, so no Hound of the Baskervilles here. Instead, Sherlock is called in on cases involving suicides that are somehow linked, stolen goods, and even graffiti at a bank (leading to a nice Banksy nod, thank you very much).
Sherlock himself is played by (the amazingly named) Benedict Cumberbatch; the classic character is re-imagined as a young know-it-all who's plagued by his intellect and awkward to the point of being a sociopath. He doesn't care at all about other people's feelings, thinking of them only as holders of clues or tools he can use to get at more clues. (For their part, other people just seem to find it obnoxious that the gumshoe knows everything about them: When Sherlock tells a potential client that he already knows the client's travel schedule without asking about it, the client says "Oh, you're doing that trick, aren't you?" and rolls his eyes.) But he Sherlock still has plenty of the characteristics we know and love, including the inability to eat while thinking and addiction issues (except this time we see him sporting nicotine patches rather than slugging the hard stuff). And rather than yelling one of his most popular catchphrases when he's onto a clue, Cumberbatch's Sherlock simply utters a sly "The game is… on" (rather than "afoot") before he and Watson race off into the night.
Watson, by the way, is deftly played by Martin Freeman, who's best known as Tim from the BBC version of The Office. His Dr. Watson is a recently discharged veteran who is struggling with some post-war physical and psychological trauma, but he's well enough to be completely annoyed and confused by Sherlock on a regular basis. At the beginning of the first installment, the two men are strangers who become flatmates... and then friends and partners.
I've never seen a modernization of a classic tale that's as natural and unforced as Sherlock. More often than not, reboots leave me frustrated with how they wink at the audience and over-exploit the things that are different now—but this version of Sherlock and Watson simply… exists in modern times. We watch the duo work with the cops who hate them, struggle to pay their bills, and have trouble using the automated checkout at the grocery store. And it doesn't take away from their genius at all.
If you've ever liked one episode of Law and Order (and that includes pretty much everyone), you simply must watch the granddaddy of all detectives work his British magic on crime. It would be criminal to miss it.
The third and final installment of Sherlock, "The Great Game," airs this Sunday, November 7 on PBS. You can watch the first two installments, "A Study in Pink" and "The Blind Banker," here (for free!).
P.S. Here's a peek at the opening credits...