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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Review: Sherlock - Series 1

At last, a Sherlock Holmes adaptation that's actually good.

As longtime readers of my blog will know, all of the Sherlock Holmes film adaptations or public domain spin-offs that I have reviewed  have been sorely lacking, to say the least. I will not go into the specifics here, but I will say that each and every one of the ones that I have viewed or read did not, I believe, succeed in depicting a version of the Great Detective that was at all true to the original Sir Arthur Conan Doyle stories. I confess that I myself have not actually gotten around to reading those stories, but I have it on good authority from someone who has read them that the adaptations that I mentioned were infinitely inadequate, and, might I add, sensationally stupid.

BBC's Sherlock, however, is a different story.

Set in 21st century London, this adaptation features a modern Dr. John Watson recently returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan, just like he was in the original stories. He's limping through life, perfectly miserable because, as he says, "Nothing happens to me." Then, through a mutual friend, John meets a truly strange person, who immediately discerns his whole life's story just from a look at the good doctor's cell phone. Before he knows it, this new acquaintance has invited him to become his new flatmate. The man's name? Do I even have to say it? ...Fine. Sherlock Holmes!

Sherlock and John, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, respectively, are featured in a series of three 90-minute installments in this, Series 1 of Sherlock. From helping the police track down a serial killer to fighting a ruthless Chinese Triad to racing the clock against a mysterious malefactor, with it all being overshadowed by an enigmatic mastermind, Sherlock and John have all sorts of daring adventures. John is with confidence able to say to Sherlock's brother Mycroft, "I'm never bored."

Sherlock gets practically everything right. The cast and writers are, as I understand it, the cream of the crop in British Telly. Though all of the actors and actresses are top-notch, of particular note are the two leads, Cumberbatch (or "Benny" as some of my sister's fangirl friends are fond of calling him) and Freeman. The are undeniably the foremost of the cast, along with Rupert Graves as Lestrade and Mark Gatiss as Mycroft. Cumberbatch portrays a Sherlock Holmes who is cold and efficient, a self-described sociopath who is slowly learning empathy and humility. This is marked contrast to Robert Downey, Jr.'s clownish, half-baked performance. I remember hearing somewhere that if these two depictions could be met somewhere in the middle, we'd have a perfect Sherlock Holmes. As it is, I believe that Cumberbatch is the superior Sherlock Holmes, giving us a charismatic, memorable execution which continues to impress me as I re-watch this show in preparation for finally viewing Series 3. (No spoilers, please!)

Much also should be said for Martin Freeman's John Watson. Freeman is one of my favorite actors, up there with James Frain and Liam Neeson. I loved him as Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I loved him as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and I love him here as John. The thing about Martin Freeman is that he's an incredibly versatile actor, handling a wide range of roles, both comedic and dramatic. He manages to bring the full force of both of those propensities into his acting on this show, pulling off hilarious punchlines and sobering drama. It's fortunate that we have such a talented actor such as Freeman in the role of the viewpoint character of Dr. John Watson, perhaps equally as important that we have as incredible an actor as Benedict Cumberbatch in the role of Sherlock Holmes.

Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are the two creative minds behind Sherlock. Though I am still a relative novice in the world of British Telly, being only vaguely familiar with Doctor Who (I'm still bogged down in Season 1) and the like, I do know this: These people genuinely love the Sherlock Holmes stories. They are dedicated to making the coolest, greatest, best Sherlock Holmes adaptation that all the might of the BBC can produce. This is present in everything from the characters to the plot details, with small tidbits like a text message that Sherlock sends John in the first episode having the same text as a telegram that Holmes sends Watson in one of the stories. Speaking of texting, this is very much a modern update of Sherlock Holmes, with key facets of the plot hinging on things like cell phones and the internet. Where Holmes smoked a pipe, Sherlock uses nicotine patches. In the hands of lesser talent, such an adaptation would be gimmicky at best and hamfisted at worst, but Moffat, Gatiss, and their compatriots are not by any means lesser talent.

Moffat in particular has a brilliant sense of suspense and mystery, as seen in the first episode of the series, "A Study in Pink." The mood is set perfectly right off the bat. It is very noirish, very stylish and techie. It kind of hearkens back to the '60s acid trips that you might see in the early episodes of Columbo. The most prominent feature of the show, however, transcends its stylish facade. Sherlock has a special brand of fast-paced humor and fun which makes you smile and gets you excited about what's going on in a way that few televisions shows manage do do. Above all, however, it's very intelligent, smart fun.What I'm saying here is that Sherlock is unusually cerebral for a television show, for in the end, any Sherlock Holmes story should be highly cerebral. I normally believe that television is a pretty watered down form of entertainment which cultivates dimwitted thinking in its viewers, but Sherlock is one of the few exceptions. This is one of those TV shows that makes you think.

The series' only con, however, is just what I pointed out as it's greatest strength: Being cerebral. Sometimes the mysteries presented in this show are a bit difficult to wrap my mind around, especially in "The Great Game", where you have multiple mysteries interwoven with each other with complicated solutions. As the old saying goes, "The devil's in the details." Sherlock is just so dadblamed smart that sometimes even I can't keep up with it. This is, I think, my third viewing of Series 1 and only now have I managed to understand who killed Connie Prince and why.

In summary, Sherlock is easily the best active Sherlock Holmes adaptation on the market today. Indeed, it is fitting that a classic work of English literature is being adapted by the BBC in a modern, tightly plotted update of the Great Detective, who, as it happens, is the most adapted literary figure in history. With awesome acting, cool characters, fantastic humor, and dynamic drama, it is not only the best Sherlock Holmes adaptation out there, but also one of the best adaptations period. Heck, it's one of the best TV shows out there period. A word of warning, however: Being a mystery crime drama, it is a bit intense for younger audiences, with a smattering of bad language and some blood and violence. Better to reserve this for viewers 15 and up.

RATING: 10/10

Image courtesy of wukaifeng.com