It’s safe to say that while the amount of original, creative output is perhaps the highest it’s ever been, we also live in a world rife with reboots and remakes. The notion of taking something popular, perhaps even popular because of its originality, and putting a modern spin on it has almost become cliche, and sometimes, even dreaded, depending on how beloved the original content is. The danger of ruination is ever present in the minds of fans and that fear has to be felt by people involved in the production. In the case of PBS’ new Masterpiece series, “Sherlock”, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the eponymous Holmes and Martin Freeman as his much-put-upon partner in crime, Watson, all minds should be put at ease. This modern take on Sherlock Holmes achieves what all great updates should, creating its own distinct feel, while reveling in the understanding of its historic predecessors.
Sherlock Holmes has enjoyed many incarnations since his creation in the late 19th Century by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but none quite so unique as “Sherlock”. The new series manages to break through the time barrier, setting the world of Holmes and Watson not in the familiar Victorian London, but in its 21st Century counterpart. No longer the world of horse and buggies, this is the world of breaking news, text messages and double-decker buses. As frightening as this might sound to purists of the Sherlock Holmes franchise, the result is actually not so foreign as it initially sounds.
The success of the new series rests on three main factors: the character, the cast and the commitment of the production. The reason Sherlock Holmes is able to survive the setting transfer is because he is so distinctive. He is a man of defined habits, faults and catchphrases, as is his companion, Dr. Watson. No matter what London Holmes is working in, it never becomes less of a thrill to hear him utter the phrase “the game is afoot,” even if it’s modernization translates to “the game, Mrs. Hudson, is on”. The Holmes of “Sherlock” is just as confident, asocial, plagued by a dark, addictive nature, and supremely intelligent as you remember him. Watson is still the practical, rational balance to Holmes’ eccentricities.
The key, though, to bringing any great character to the screen, rests entirely on the shoulders of the portrayer, and in “Sherlock”, the casting is superb. Benedict Cumberbatch brings the perfect amount of haughtiness to his cutting remarks while his fast-paced delivery of lines makes him believable as the possessor of an intelligence that no mere mortal could ever match. And yet, there’s a moment in this premiere episode, “A Study in Pink” where the sheer joy of the anticipation of an intriguing case brings about an unexpected, but welcomed, joyous reaction. Sherlock Holmes is a man in control of almost every moment, who desires to be in control of every single situation, who is sometimes plagued by self-doubt and who does his best to make sure no one ever knows that and Cumberbatch rises to all of those challenges.
Similarly, Martin Freeman, who is certainly having a good week with this premiere following so closely on the heels of the announcement of his casting as Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit”, brings what he brings best to the role of Watson. Freeman, who made his name as Tim in the BBC’s original version of “The Office,” is the quintessential everyman. He has an honest face, capable of conveying things with the raise of an eyebrow, and the intelligence to make Watson’s army medic past believable, but it’s the easy, underplayed, comic timing that makes Freeman’s Watson the perfect combination of sidekick, friend and skeptical witness. He avoids wandering into the almost befuddled goofiness of Edward Hardwicke’s portrayal and sidesteps the overly-aggressive nature of Jude Law’s interpretation. The rest of the cast is rounded out by Rupert Graves as Detective Inspector Lestrade and Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson.
“Sherlock,” created and written by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the team behind BBC’s phenomenally successful recent version of Dr. Who, have taken all of the best parts of the 21st Century technology, topics, and pop-culture references, and combined them with the the good old-fashioned logic, deduction, and intrigue that made Holmes a hit in the late 19th Century. Perhaps they slightly overplay their hand a bit when it comes to the ambiguous Holmes/Watson relationship in this first episode, but the pacing of the story and the sly humor in the writing combine to make this a compulsively watchable adaptation. Perhaps the most interesting thing about this version is that, through the help of the technology introduced, the audience actually seems to be allowed to participate in Holmes’ deduction. While it’s clear that his mind is still moving light years ahead of most of us, it is possible for us to follow his train of thought and feel more involved in the mystery. This initial episode also promises an intriguing future with the introduction familiar favorites Mycroft and Moriarty. Well edited, with some great split screen cuts, lighting that looks similar to a Fincher film, and a parting shot that rings more true to Lethal Weapon than to Jeremy Brett’s version, this “Sherlock” is something that should bring a whole new pop-culture fueled generation under Holmes’ spell while still remaining true to the spirit of the original.