There has never been a time in television history when the influence of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes has been more ubiquitous than right now. Every night across the networks, modern-day Moriartys carry out Rube Goldberg crimes that are solved by the Sherlock Holmes wannabes of varying CSI franchises or the crime-solving eccentrics on The Mentalist and Lie to Me, among others. Even disease has a tough time getting away with murder in the presence of Dr. House, the most Holmesian of the lot (he even has his very own Watson, rechristened Wilson).
With so much competition, it’s impressive that Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the creators of Sherlock, have chosen such a gimmick-free approach to their series. It may be a contemporary update, but they have simply, and very successfully, lifted Doyle’s characters out of the Victorian era and dropped them unchanged into present-day London. There are a few obvious differences: Dr. John Watson, Holmes’s best friend and chronicler, is now a blogger, and while the modern-day Holmes has access to multiple new technologies, including the Internet and GPS, they are only in service of his greater observational gifts. Then there are elements that only seem to be modern but are, in fact, references to the original stories, such as Watson’s past as a military doctor wounded in the war in Afghanistan. This is directly from A Study in Scarlet, the novel that brought Holmes and Watson together, and the basis for the first episode of Sherlock.
True to the character as written by Doyle, Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is arrogant and self-absorbed; it’s unclear whether he’s solving crimes in order to prevent more crimes from happening or solving them to prove his own superiority. Cumberbatch achieves a kind of blankness in his performance, making him in no way lovable. As he says of himself at one point, he’s a “high-functioning sociopath.” Martin Freeman (from the original U.K. version of The Office) is terrific as Watson. He plays the role very straight, using his deadpan comic gifts to portray Watson as the solid, silent type, and fortunately, there’s not a hint of Watson as a dimwitted fool, popularized by the Nigel Bruce’s Watson in the Hollywood films of the 1930s and 1940s.
When Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes came out last year, there was a mild uproar that a cerebral character such as Holmes had been transformed into a glorified action figure. But while it’s true that some of the action set pieces from Ritchie’s film were wildly over-the-top, it felt as though the filmmakers understood Holmes and Watson’s basic appeal. They may solve mysteries, but they also go on adventures. Watson, as originally written by Doyle, is good with a gun, and Holmes is a master of martial arts and disguises. These are pulp characters, and the creators of Sherlock know this. There is no stuffy reverence here; it’s only about delivering clever, well-plotted escapism, which was all Doyle had in mind himself.
Moffat and Gatiss met as writers on the new series of Doctor Who. Moffat, in particular, has penned some of the very best of the recent episodes of that show, and you can feel his fingerprints all over Sherlock—in the fast pace, the rhythm of the dialogue, the abrupt shifts between comedy and horror, and also its lack of sophistication. There’s nothing real-world or adult about this new series aside from the violence, which is probably why Holmes’s notorious drug addiction (his seven-percent solution of cocaine) is dropped.
Another similarity to Doctor Who is its inconsistency. Sherlock consists of only three feature-length episodes (more are reportedly on the way), but the second episode, about a Chinese crime syndicate, is a poorly plotted mess. The third and final episode is the best, a wildly entertaining game of cat and mouse played between Holmes and Moriarty (a scene-chewing Andrew Scott) that more than makes up for the mediocre previous episode. But two out of three is not a terrible batting average. And when clever storytelling is done well, as Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories have proved, they can far outlive their times.