TV: Review: Sherlock

Written by Ben Wagner on . Posted in TV

Confession: I am a huge Sherlock Holmes fan. When I was 8 years old, I found an old copy of The Complete Sherlock Holmes that belonged to my father, and I spent the next few weeks plowing through it, reading every one of Conan Doyle’s original stories. These stories still hold a special place for me, and are a huge part of why I decided to study literature.

So naturally I am always interested when a new film or television adaptation of the Holmes character comes around. From the old Basil Rathbone films to the Jeremy Brett TV series to the recent Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. reimagining, I’ve seen and enjoyed dozens of adaptations over the years. When I was in London recently, I began to hear about a new Sherlock Holmes series (simply titled Sherlock) being produced by the BBC that had received rave reviews. My interest was piqued, and upon returning to the States I looked around for how I could see the series. I discovered the show had aired in the U.S. on PBS as part of their masterpiece series, and was available to view online for free through December 27th. I promptly went and watched the entire series and was really surprised by what I saw.

The twist in the story is that Sherlock removes the Holmes story from the Victorian Era and places it in modern day London. The modern day element feels completely natural, and at no point does it seem like they are being modern for the sake of being modern. Much like in the original stories, Sherlock uses whatever tools he has available to him, whether it be text messaging, modern-day forensics or Google.

While Holmes purists may hate the change of time, the fact is the Sherlock Holmes stories were never about the Victorian Era — they were about the characters. By removing Holmes and Watson from the traditional Victorian setting, the show separates itself from more recent adaptations that focused too heavily on the Victorian elements. This allows the show to place a real focus on the characters, giving them the chance to develop over the course of the series.

The acting in Sherlock is top notch. Benedict Cumberbatch (whose previous credits include the Oscar-nominated film Atonement) plays the title character, in what may be the best incarnation of Sherlock Holmes I’ve ever seen. Cumberbatch plays Holmes as a self-described “higher-functioning sociopath,” who’s intellect (and ego) is truly worthy of the Holmes of the literary canon. Watching him on-screen, you really feel like he is that smart — 30 minutes into the first episode, I realized I was just expecting Holmes to always be a step ahead of me.

Cumberbatch’s  performance emphasizes the more anti-social elements of the Holmes character, but not in the way the recent Robert Downey Jr. incarnation did. Downey’s character had an undeniable charisma, and came off as though he was choosing to be anti-social at times. In many way’s Downey’s Holmes was just an extension of Robert Downey Jr. real personality. On the other hand, Cumberbatch’s character does not choose to be anti-social — he simply does not know how to have human interaction. He is the way he is, and in this he becomes much more believable and relatable. He is not larger then life, just smarter than the rest of us.

Martin Freeman plays Dr. John Watson. Freeman has previously appeared with minor roles in a slew of films, including Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and Love Actually. Freeman gives the Watson character a new level of depth as a man trying to deal with post-military life. In Sherlock, Watson isn’t the unintelligent, blundering follower of other incarnations. Instead, he is shown to be a very capable and intelligent (albeit not as intelligent as Holmes) man.

Throughout the series Holmes’ trust in Watson grows and he begins to assign him important and meaningful tasks. Watson does not just tag along, but becomes a proactive player in the stories. Freeman and Cumberbatch have an undeniable chemistry, and their relationship grows and develops naturally over the course of the series. In short, Cumberbatch and Freeman deliver what is the most nuanced portrayal of the Holmes and Watson relationship that I have ever come across.

The writing is another area where the show really stands out, the dialogue is clever and demonstrates a wit rarely seen in American television. By setting the show in the modern environment and combining it with excellent writing, Sherlock feels more exciting than previous adaptations — the show moves quickly from scene to scene with fast-paced dialogue and plots. The series consists of three, 90-minute episodes, all of which are wildly entertaining. At the end of each 90 minutes, I found myself wanting more.

The short of it is, if you like Sherlock Holmes, go check out Sherlock. If you just like good TV, go check out Sherlock. The show may not be available for free online viewing anymore, but it’s certainly worth a few of your hard-earned dollars on Amazon or iTunes.

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