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Review: Sherlock

Spoilers are blackened. Select blackened areas by dragging across them if you want to read the spoilers anyway.

Sherlock is a new BBC TV show that tells the story of famous detective Sherlock Holmes, but brought from Victorian London into our time. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson.

Usually, when you hear a TV show has been updated, it justly makes people worried. But for this show, it works wonderfully. Yes, Watson has a therapist-mandated blog instead of writing to the local newspaper about Sherlock's and Watson's exploits, but at least in the first episode that doesn't factor into the story at all, and is merely used as a throwaway nod to that aspect of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's books.

The important stuff they kept: Sherlock is a kind of weird person, he is great at deduction, a very good detective, smart and quick. The show references his tendency to drug abuse because "his mind rebels at stagnation" (as Mr. Doyle himself put it so aptly). And he enjoys his work a bit more than he probably should ("The chase is on!").

Watson's details have also been used to great advantage. He is a quiet, almost mellow character who in the beginning lets Holmes get away with pretty much everything. He is impressed by Holmes' ideas, and the (almost unused, in the books) background of Holmes as a military doctor is used not only as a rationalization for his skills, but also for the reason why he would hang around with "a highly-functional sociopath" like Holmes.

The two actors work great in their roles, and their acting, the camera work and lighting in this modern show work great to make Holmes look like any Holmes before him, even though the traditional checkered suit, cape and hat as well as the pipe are not present. Also, Mark Gatiss (co-creator of this series along with Steven Moffat) has a nice guest-role as a familiar character from the books, where he's been typecast in the best possible way, as a character that feels too nice to be the real villain, yet too smarmy and too "arch" to be a nice guy.

The music is solid work: Prominent where it should be, fading away into the background and supporting the acting otherwise. It is also eerily reminiscent of the music in aforementioned summer blockbuster movie, but doesn't feel like a rip-off. It is simply the music you'd expect from Sherlock Holmes, and works wonderfully to anchor a modern show like this one in a mood that is more like Victorian London.

All in all, this is a show that knows exactly what it should and should not do, use and change. Lestrade is not a complete moron in the books, and here he comes across as quite competent and sympathetic, and thus just makes Holmes look even smarter.

The downsides

Not much is to be criticized in this show. Yes, the tilt-shift effect in the intro and one or two establishing shots isn't going to age well now that every iPhone on the planet can do it, and the clever text caption effects and that one tastefully done split-screen will probably also label this as a distinctly "2010's show", and the nicotine patch thing already felt like a silly way to shoehorn the "three-pipe-problem" idea into a show in a time where not only smoking is uncool, but pipes are a rarity, but these are minor gripes, just like the few phrases and funny insults that we've already heard almost like this in episodes of the very successful "Doctor Who" TV show, in which both authors have taken part (Gatiss as an actor, Moffat as an author and now as the show-runner).

There is one plot element that I found very obvious, and that took too long to develop: When Holmes says "Who do we trust even though we don't know them? (...) Who hunts in the middle of a crowd." and a few moments later another taxi cab drives by -- that made it very obvious to the audience, yet Holmes takes another 15 minutes (of 90 minutes) to realize it, and in that time he searched the right taxi and his landlady repeatedly tells him a cab driver he hasn't ordered is waiting for him. That was hammering it home a bit, particularly since we've seen the very same plot element in police-procedural blockbuster movies like The Bone Hunter, which the audience can pretty much be expected to be familiar with.

But none except for that last one, none is even close to being central to the show, and as this is the viewer's introduction to the characters, it is fine if the plot isn't that challenging yet. You want to familiarize yourself with these characters, get to know them and their world, and you get a lot more of that while Holmes and Watson spend a little more time investigating what the audience already knows.

The surprising upsides

The show has a few neat bonus moments. One of them is the eternally-texting woman in the car that picks up Watson, another are some of the observations that Holmes makes about the people around himself, yet another are Holmes' pranks at the press conference, one example of his exaggerated, but strangely empirical research methods. The beginnings of a story arc involving, of course none other than Moriarty, the moments where the weird circumstance that Holmes and Watson are two male bachelors sharing a flat is addressed.

And of course there is the way we are given a completely different view of Holmes' relationship with the police, which both makes for a refreshing change, while providing a rationalization for what otherwise would have had to be explained by Lestrade being incompetent.

The supporting cast are also great. Especially Lestrade's colleague Donovan (Vinette Robinson) and the mortician Molly (Loo Brealey) give Cumberbatch some great opportunities to play off of, and Rupert Graves gives Lestrade a dignity and trustworthy air that has been missing from many of his depictions in other movies.

In closing

After the first episode, I'm already hooked. Too bad that the first series only consists of three episodes, but I hope it will have a successful future as an event movie series for years to come. And if you feel withdrawal, there's always the Holmes parody that is at the same time the most faithful adaptation, Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

PS - Do not mix up this series with the TV movie "Sherlock", also known as Sherlock, Case of Evil that was made in 2002 and is currently available in many bargain bins.

Reader Comments: (RSS Feed)
Jonathan Badeen writes:
Agreed. Characters were done really well and I look forward to looking forward for more eps. Gotta love the mePhone.
woody writes:
It was bloody awful! I have read all the original stories and remember them all, this is an insult to the imagination of Sir Arthur. Contemporary is a waste of effort, I have never seen so much shite!!
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