Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A Baker Street Irregular

I have to admit that when I heard about the new BBC version of Sherlock Holmes--helpfully titled Sherlock--I was dubious. I mean, at this point, we have a century of re-interpretations and inheritors and after Guy Ritchie's "reboot" in theaters last year, I wasn't keen to see another one. Can anything new be brought to the party? It turns out that there can. The new series--the first season is a trio of hour and a half movies, really--brings us a thoroughly modern Holmes set in contemporary London, but changes almost nothing else about the character. Holmesians, who are notoriously picky about the character, honestly shouldn't have much to complain about. It's not particularly reverential, and it refuses to embalm Holmes and Watson, but it is certainly faithful to the spirit. It's a measure of the strength of Doyle's original that it has proven so easy to update. All of the pieces are in place: Holmes is still preternaturally gifted, but also kind of a prick about it; Watson is a returning vet from Afghanistan who blogs about their adventures rather than publishing them in the penny dreadfuls; Lestrade is still their contact at Scotland Yard; Mycroft is still in the background, as is Professor Moriarty; even Mrs. Hudson returns as the landlady at 221B Baker Street. It all hews very closely to the canonical description of Holmes, actually, and it works. It sets the hook (boy, howdy, does it!).

This is a modern police procedural not very different from your CSI's and your Law and Orders, and surly, borderline aspie geniuses have become the stock in trade of these shows. Dr. House is a descendant. So is Lisabeth Salander. But these characters are all planets; Holmes is the sun around which they all orbit. Place him at the center of one of these kinds of shows, and he all but eclipses the cliches. Mainly because you're too busy watching him to notice the rest. Of course, this all depends on your Holmes and Watson. Many an adaptation has gone awry in the casting. Sherlock, as it turns out, is not one of those. Benedict Cumberbatch, surely the most extravagantly named actor ever to play the part, is a splendid Holmes. He gets the arrogance, the prickliness, and the twinkle in the eye exactly right. He's younger than the average Holmes, and (from my purely glandular perspective) probably the most attractive. Seriously, even if he is a little baby-faced, he's hot, from those icy blue eyes to that deep, sarcastic voice. Martin Freeman's Watson gets props, too. Sherlock doesn't make Watson into a buffoon, and it has a bit of fun when Watson occasionally gets ahead of Holmes. His sheer ordinariness is a terrific foil for Cumberbatch. Rupert Graves's Lestrade gets a similar treatment; not an idiot, a terrific foil.

That all said, the three episodes of the first season are wildly variable.

The first episode is actually based on Doyle, transposing A Study in Scarlet into a contemporary setting as "A Study in Pink." As with the original, this is our introduction to Holmes through the eyes of Dr. Watson, as they become flatmates and embark on their first adventure. It serves the dual purpose of acclimating the audience to a Holmes who prefers to text as his default interaction with others and who has substituted nicotine patches for his cocaine addiction (this last is elided in a knowing scene where the cops toss the flat on Baker Street for drugs as a means of squeezing Holmes). It also lets the audience get used to its visual strategies, which include putting text on screen (sometimes hilariously so) and liberal use of GPS. The original story turned on a lost ring, and this one turns the ring into a telephone. It also has some fun with the nature of Watson's war injury, given that Doyle himself was inconsistent with it. Parts of this are pretty horrific, as befits a contemporary policier, but it's the comedy moments that are most telling. At one point Holmes tells one of the cops, "I'm NOT a psychopath; I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your homework!" At another, he mocks the "shock blanket" draped over victims of crimes ("I'm in shock! See! I have a blanket!"). The continuing insinuations about Holmes and Watson's sexual orientation is worthy of (and probably borrowed from) Billy Wilder.

Episode two, "The Blind Banker", is kind of a comedown, unfortunately. While the elements that make "A Study in Pink" so delightful are still there, it makes the mistake of going back to the pulps for a storyline that seems anachronistic. The story here involves a break in at a banking house that lead Holmes and Watson into the path of a Tong, complete with inescapable deathtraps and a vague orientalist racism. While Holmes and Watson make the jump to the 21st Century quite nicely, this sort of thing does not.

"The Great Game," the final episode of the season, finds the detective finally crossing swords with Moriarty. Oh, Moriarty is a presence in the first two episodes, but we actually meet him in this one. We also see more Holmesian touches begin to surface, including the detective's penchant for disguises and the network of Baker Street Irregulars. The plot, involving a series of crimes that Holmes must solve in an allotted time frame else some innocent will die, allows the filmmakers to dump a bunch of Holmesian elements into the episode in miniature. It ends on a cliffhanger.

There's an interesting shock of the same in these episodes. A hundred years after Doyle's Watson came home from Afghanistan, Sherlock's Watson comes home from the same place. The world hasn't moved on as much as we might like, this show suggests, though in some ways--particularly it's casual approach to contemporary mores and sexual orientations--this is a VASTLY different world than what you find in Doyle. This sets up an interesting tension from the outset, one that the show could well trip over (and, I think, does in the second episode). For the most part, it has avoided the trap. Given the way the first season ends, a second season is inevitable. Creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gattis have made some promises in the press: "You can have three words to work from: Adler, Hound, Reichenbach. Those are your clues." I am SO there...


Jinx said...

Brilliant stuff, Doc. I too was dubious about this, I'm a terrible old Holmes purist and was sure I'd hate it, but I also found myself pleasantly surprised. Will be very interested to see how the second series develops. Marvellous stuff.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

I used to be a Holmes purist, but I think I got over it the last time I revisited the Jeremy Brett series. Brett is a fine Holmes, but the series itself is reverential to Doyle to the point of tedium. As Holmes himself might say: "Boring!"

But, yeah, I was pleasantly surprised too, and I'm totally on board for the next series. I hope Martin Freeman getting cast as Bilbo Baggins doesn't shoot a hole in the series.

Veer Wilde said...

I was never really a Holmes purist, simply a fan. I didn't even know about this series until one episode had passed. I soon caught up and was hooked. I love the stuff Stephen Moffat does and wasn't disappointed with Sherlock.

Their relationship is perfect and wonderful and the little things turned or changed from the books makes it all the more intriguing.

My only crit would be that they seem to overdo the use of all the technology in order to make you remember that it's set in the 21st century.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Veer.

I think you're right about the high tech element. The emphasis on technology extends to the visual sensibility, too, I think, and not just the text on screen stuff. It seems to me that the show went out of its way to film in modernist spaces.

Oh, and welcome.