Sherlock: TV Review

Benedict Cumberbatch brings deliciously abrasive brilliance to the title role of this PBS “Masterpiece Mystery!” import, an entertaining overhaul of the Holmes and Watson double-act that plants one foot in their Victorian origins and the other in the cyber age.

In “Sherlock,” the BBC’s inventive contemporary makeover of crime fiction’s most iconic detective duo, Martin Freeman’s John Watson is introduced as a brooding war veteran returning injured from Afghanistan and possibly suffering from PTSD, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes is first seen diligently flogging a corpse with a riding crop to measure the time it takes for bruises to appear.

Refashioning your protagonists as a damaged soul spat out of an ongoing conflict and a self-described “high functioning sociopath” might seem an obvious ploy to blow the dust off well-worn Victorian archetypes. But those scenes, and many other choice nuggets, were lifted almost directly from Arthur Conan Doyle.

The show deftly straddles the material’s literary essence and the dictates of modern-day entertainment, trading fog and gaslight for a sleek 21st century London that’s equal parts gloss and grit. Unlike Warners’ 2009 big-screen version, which revved up a period adventure by placing a heavy foot on the action-movie accelerator, this three-part series (with more episodes to come in 2011) brings a subtle relish to its blending of the two eras.

That asset is secondary, however, to the pleasures of watching the incisive characterizations and nuanced interplay of Cumberbatch and Freeman take shape.

It’s not hard to spot the hands at work of series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both part of the rescue team that helped rehabilitate Doctor Who. With his foppish taste in outerwear and scarves, it’s conceivable that Cumberbatch’s Sherlock shares the time-traveling doctor’s stylist, but there’s also a kinship in the eccentricities of two characters on their own frequently impenetrable wavelength.

Rock-star thin and with the beady gaze of a raptor, Cumberbatch comes from the same school as gifted, etiquette-challenged professional problem-solvers like Dr. Gregory House. He’s arrogant, blunt, asexual and seemingly unencumbered by the banalities of conventional morality or compassion.

The enthusiasm of Conan Doyle’s Holmes for gadgetry translates smoothly into nimble-fingered smart-phone app-titude, while the pipe gets swapped out for nicotine patches — multiples when extra concentration is required. Like his progenitor, the new Sherlock also is an obsessive auto-didact with little concern for the common-sense gaps in his knowledge.

Those gaps are filled via a perfect symbiosis with Freeman’s John (no starchy Dr. Watson here). Unlike the dim bulb of too many adaptations, the sidekick is characterized here by his thoughtful dignity. Even when he’s struggling to keep up with Sherlock’s deductive powers, John is a leveling influence, never a clueless foil.

That well-honed dynamic and a sly sense of humor keep Sherlock compelling even when its plotting falters, as it does in part three, The Great Game, with its overburdened grid of crisscrossing cases. As a cliffhanger it’s effective, but the episode works itself into too much of a lather preparing for the showy entrance of Holmes’ arch enemy and criminal mastermind counterpart, Moriarty (Andrew Scott).

The sharpest of the three 90-minute self-contained mysteries is the opener, A Study in Pink, written by Moffat and directed with brio by Paul McGuigan. Detective stories are nothing without meticulous exposition, and this one dazzles with the economy of its character presentation, its witty groundwork for the central relationship and the diabolical glee with which it lays out pieces of the puzzle at hand. This is superior sleuth TV.