The first question I had while watching “Sherlock,” a contemporary-set adaptation of Sherlock Holmes that PBS’ ‘Masterpiece Mystery” is debuting Sunday at 9 p.m., is what 21st century pop culture looks like if Holmes has just appeared on the scene.
“Sherlock,” created by “Doctor Who” producer Steven Moffat and actor/writer Mark Gatiss, exists in a world much like our own, where characters watch TV and listen to music, and where a killer can taunt Holmes (here played by Benedict Cumberbatch) by asking if he wants to phone a friend. Yet if Holmes and his methods are brand-new - and the London cops, as well as partner John Watson (Martin Freeman from the British “Office”), all act as if they’ve never seen anyone like him before - then is this a world without Dr. House, Gil Grissom, Temperance Brennan, Patrick Jane and all the other contemporary sleuths who owe a huge debt to Holmes’ superhuman powers of observation?
And conversely, given all these Holmes-ian investigators wandering around 21st century television in our world, what would be so special about watching Holmes and Dr. Watson in present day?
The answer: quite a bit, because Holmes remains a great character regardless of his imitators, and because Moffat and Gatiss have figured out how to translate him to today’s London without making it seem like a gimmick.
Sure, Watson keeps a blog instead of a journal and Holmes is a whiz with a cell phone, but those are just concessions to the time. (If Holmes was a Luddite who didn’t know how to text, that would call more attention to the character being out of his native time, frankly.) Ditto changing Holmes’ “the game is afoot” catchphrase to “the game is on,” as he would only say “afoot” if he was referencing a 100-year-old version of himself who wasn’t supposed to exist.
The basics are all the same: Holmes is a brilliant, aloof private detective who helps Scotland Yard out on the most bizarre cases, and Watson is his sometimes frustrated, sometimes impressed, always tough partner. And thanks to committed performances from Cumberbatch and Freeman, and clever writing from Moffat and Gatiss, most of it works splendidly.
Sunday’s episode, “A Study in Pink,” is the first of three 90-minute stories of this first “season” (even by British standards, it’s really short). Adapting the first Holmes mystery, “A Study in Scarlet” (another instance of updating the idiom just enough), it’s wisely told from the point of view of Watson. As in the original 19th century stories, he’s just back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan and feeling adrift. He has a limp that the doctors insist is psychosomatic, has no job and needs a roommate to help with the London rents. A med school pal introduces him to the eccentric Holmes, who has a line on a flat at 221B Baker Street he can’t afford on his own, and before Watson entirely realizes what’s happening, they’re living together and he’s helping Holmes prove that a series of suicidal poisonings are actually the work of a clever serial killer. And, more amazingly, he finds himself enjoying life again - working alongside Holmes gives him both the thrill and sense of purpose he last had in the military. And because Freeman is so inherently likable, and because Watson quickly takes a shine to Holmes in spite of all his insufferable tics, we quickly like him, too.
Though Holmes is mostly unchanged from the original Arthur Conan Doyle version, the world he inhabits has, and Moffat and Gatiss wisely don’t run from that. Holmes is weird, and his broad knowledge base, keen powers of observation and fixation on the most bizarre of crimes marks him as someone the cops don’t entirely trust, even as they recognize his usefulness.
“He gets off on it,” one cop tries to warn Watson. “One day, we’ll be standing around a body and Sherlock Holmes will be the one that put it there... He’s a psychopath. Psychopaths get bored.”
(Later, Holmes retorts, “I’m not a psychopath. I’m a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.”)
Cumberbatch’s thick topcoat and flowing scarf make him look more like a new incarnation of “Doctor Who” than Holmes, and there’s a definitely alien quality to his performance. But it’s never self-conscious or hammy. Holmes simply isn’t like the rest of us. He sees the world in a different way - the writers and director Paul McGuigan show us (ala HBO’s recent Temple Grandin biopic) how their hero thinks in pictures - and carries himself accordingly.
The first and third installments are a bit stronger than the second, as the first deals with the origin of the Holmes/Watson partnership and the third pits Holmes against arch-rival Moriarty, where the middle chapter is a straightforward mystery. (In that way, the mini-season isn’t unlike the many current American dramas that become less interesting the more standalone a particular episode becomes.)
Overall, though, the reinvention is so smart and funny and thrilling that I hope we get another, longer season before too long - and not just because I want to find out what Hugh Laurie is up to in their universe if “House” can’t exist.
(NOTE: As with "Luther," "Doctor Who," etc., I'm going to ask that people who have seen all the episodes as they aired in England won't spoil any specifics for the people who are about to see it for the first time in the States. Not sure yet if I'm going to have time for posts on the three episodes, but I'll try to at least have an open post up for Sunday's debut.)
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com