Converting pre-existing fiction into television is brave. But taking one of literature's most worshipped, idiosyncratic heroes, repainting him as modern man and sinking him into three newly invented plots is almost certainly idiotic--but not if it’s done like this. Merging filmic playfulness with an elegant, antiqued protagonist and careful, clever writing, Sherlock, starring the delectably odd Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, is a perfect slab of sleuth television.
The first of three feature-length episodes introduces the amateur detective to his sidekick, John Watson (Martin Freeman). Holmes is looking for a flatmate when the ex-army doctor with a limp and trust issues (both acquired in Afghanistan) rocks up.
Before Watson can make up his mind about his new acquaintance, or whether he should take the flat, Holmes is called in to consult on a spate of poison-induced deaths that the police have nervously classified as serial suicides. He takes Watson to the scene where a woman in a pink coat lies face down, very dead. It looks to the doctor and the police like a clue-lite crime (if indeed it is a crime). But two-minutes of corpse gazing tells Holmes it’s murder and gives him enough biographical information to write a lengthy Wikipedia entry. These moments, when we get to watch his deductive brain sprint, are heavenly. For this Sherlock, like Conan Doyle’s original, crime solving is an intellectual game and absolutely no place for emotion. But it’s only worth his time if the perpetrator is a sufficiently cerebral and imaginative opponent. Holmes, old or new, could never be turned on by a mundane murder.
Fortunately, there’s nothing dull about this crime or Holmes’ adventure-packed solving of it. We’re continually challenged to keep up with his analysis. You’re not supposed to succeed but the chase is raucous fun, even if you’re a pedant for logic. Holmes’ conclusions stand up to play back. Go over his breakdown segments slowly afterwards and you can’t fault his reasoning.
Adaptations tend to be demure and lingering, as if to chop and play around too much is discourteous to the original. But approaching something like Sherlock Holmes with timidity would be a disaster. Thankfully creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss avoid that mistake with their speedy, acrobatic though entirely respectful update. There are very few still moments. Holmes pauses only to scoff at those with brains inferior his own (that’s everyone) and to send text messages. The detective’s reliance on technology might draw complaints from those who see it as a crude way to revise a vintage character, but the Victorian Sherlock Holmes was often at the forefront of the new scientific age. If GPS trackers and facial recognition software had been around in the 19th century, then by golly he’d have used them.
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