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One of my favorite burgeoning subgenres of recent years is the Netflix Algorithm Show: a series seemingly produced or acquired not so much because it represented a fully baked idea, but because everybody in the room could envision with absolute certainty all the different Netflix categories it could be slotted into.
There are dozens of true crime shows and Black Mirror knockoffs I would put in this genre, but Tom Bidwell’s The Irregulars may be the mother of all Netflix Algorithm Shows.
Air date: Mar 26, 2021
Not only is Bidwell a Netflix favorite after writing the service’s adaptation of Watership Down, but The Irregulars practically demands to be pitched as Sherlock Holmes — Netflix has the Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. Sherlocks, plus the well-received Enola Holmes — meets Stranger Things meets Bridgerton. Rest assured that if you’ve watched any of those, this new drama is about to be relentlessly suggested to you. With shades of various CW dramas and just the smallest dash of The Crown, it hardly matters whether The Irregulars is successful on its own terms if it’s familiar on so many others.
The Baker Street Irregulars are a ready-made spinoff within the Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock universe. They’re a group of workhouse exiles and urchins enlisted periodically by Holmes and Dr. Watson to find information that might be inaccessible for a pair of reputable gentlemen.
Here the Irregulars are introduced as a quartet living in a drafty squat just blocks away from 221B Baker Street. They share a landlady — Mrs. Hudson, one of countless references designed to make Doyle devotees insufferable pests to watch this show with — and little else. Sisters Bea (Thaddea Graham) and Jessie (Darci Shaw) and pals Billy (Jojo Macari) and Spike (McKell David) are barely making ends meet and they have physical and psychological wounds from their harsh Dickensian youth. As if that isn’t bad enough, Jessie is haunted by disorienting bad dreams that have Bea worried that she shares the mental illness that stole their mother from them.
A small measure of economic salvation comes when the stern Dr. Watson (Royce Pierreson) offers them work trying to investigate a series of baby-snatchings in the area — abductions that may or may not relate to Jessie’s dreams or to an increased number of apparently feral ravens occupying the evocatively stagey alleyways and rooftops that make up Victor Molero’s production design.
It isn’t just abductions, though. The Irregulars soon realize that something supernatural is afoot in London, spawning a series of increasingly nightmarish situations amplifying the worst of Victorian class distinctions and pointing to nothing less than a tear in the fabric of reality. Think early Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with each villain-of-the-week an embodied metaphor for teen insecurity building up to an inevitable Big Bad. What does this have to do with the erratic Sherlock (Henry Lloyd-Hughes) or the arrival of Harrison Osterfield’s slumming-in-disguise Prince Leopold? Let’s just say there are lots of intersecting love triangles and perfunctory yearning glances.
From its generally modern musical choices to language that’s more anachronistic than period-appropriate, The Irregulars leads with high energy and an inclusive worldview, one in which the Victorian obsession with class has erased race entirely. Unlike in Bridgerton, there isn’t even a cursory effort to acknowledge that characters of color, including a Black Dr. Watson and Asian leading lady (Graham was born in China, raised in Northern Ireland), are navigating a world that, in reality, wasn’t so embracing of difference. Once you’re blending real history, embellished history, Sherlockian fiction and outlandish monsters, questions like, “What is the role of race in this society?” become distant afterthoughts.
Still, parsing what’s real and what’s fake in this world is probably more satisfying than cracking the series’ main narrative mysteries, because for all the Netflix-friendly things it’s doing, The Irregulars is only doing some of them well. The Doyle-adjacent side of the story, anything involving deduction or even rudimentary investigation, is completely unengaging; you might justify it with “But this version of Sherlock isn’t so sharp himself,” but that’s flimsy. The horror elements are usually well-introduced — a freaky specter stealing teeth, the aforementioned ravens who turn London into a grimier version of Hitchcock’s Bodega Bay — and then weakly defused. Meditations on grief have the bad timing of splitting the difference between recent plots of WandaVision, which people mostly enjoyed, and the sequel to Wonder Woman, which people mostly reviled.
The flaws point to a show that wants to be for everybody, just not anybody specific. The references here and there will appeal to the presumptively erudite, but that audience will recognize how far The Irregulars falls short of “literate.” There’s a heightened goriness, but almost nothing that’s scary, so exactly the right combination to freak out small children watching and bore older audiences. There are snippets of language you couldn’t get on The CW, but a coy embarrassment when it comes to anything sexual, except for bathhouse scenes that are happy to get chuckles from the occasional naked rump. It’s the relentless checking of boxes that makes episodes run past 50 minutes, when a broadcast version with 10 minutes trimmed per episode would have a lighter step and lose little in the way of character.
The performances, given through continuity-jeopardizing designer coal smudges, are mixed. Graham is plucky and has an emotional openness that sometimes breaks through the gray, waterlogged dinginess of the proceedings. With the teen romances falling flat, the sisterly relationship between Bea and Jessie is the show’s heart, with Shaw confirming the effective vulnerability she showcased in a few scenes as the young Judy Garland in the Oscar-winning Judy. Of the young men, Macari suffers from an inconsistently written role, David suffers from a too-often-forgotten role and Osterfield suffers from an inexplicable lack of specificity in a character with a theoretically interesting background.
I doubt Lloyd-Hughes has enough to play to become one of anybody’s top five Sherlocks, but Pierreson brings a glowering charisma to a worthy interpretation of Watson. Among recognizable supporting players, Clarke Peters brings an enjoyable hamminess to a figure known mostly as Linen Man, and there are good guest-starring showcases for actors including Rory McCann, Sheila Atim and Jonjo O’Neill.
For all of my tepidness, I thought The Irregulars did a couple of satisfying things in the last of its eight episodes. But let the algorithm bring The Irregulars to you. Don’t seek it out.
Cast: Thaddea Graham, Darci Shaw, Jojo Macari, McKell David, Harrison Osterfield, Royce Pierreson and Henry Lloyd-Hughes
Creator: Tom Bidwell
Premieres Friday, March 26, on Netflix.
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