While everyone else was stuffing themselves full of new episodes of Arrested Development over the long Memorial Day weekend – and based on the two I’ve seen so far, why? – I decided to plow through another series that’s one of Netflix’s best offerings.
No, not Hemlock Grove. Even my wife, as much a connoisseur of trashy TV as Paula Deen is of butter, had to cut that off after four episodes.
British television has produced a number of high-quality dramas that can at least stand in the ring with The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Following. (Just making sure you’re paying attention. RIP Kevin Bacon’s career). You might be most familiar with Downton Abbey, which is required viewing for every woman between 18 and 108. Maybe you’re more into sci-fi than period pieces, in which case the 345th incarnation of Doctor Who could be more your speed.
But if those two series are Britain’s most famous exports, BBC’s Sherlock is the best.
I made my first foray into BBC drama with Luther, a psychological crime thriller that just so happens to star STRINGER FREAKING BELL. Idris Elba, who you’d never have known was British if your only exposure to him was watching him roam the streets of West Baltimore like some sort of drug kingpin (he was), is the good guy here as Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, a cop who – and you may have heard this before – plays by his own rules, doesn’t let ethics stand in his way and is consumed with his work. The show, in the ever-odd world of British TV construction, has thus far featured two seasons and 10 total episodes. The six-episode first season was excellent, gripping throughout with a nervously cool performance from Elba and a psychotic-yet-alluring turn from Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan. The second, a four-episode run, is still good, but gets a little strange and seems more hastily thrown together.
That’s hardly the case in either of the first two seasons of Sherlock, which sounds like a pretty quick commitment at just two runs of three episodes apiece. But rather than getting an episode in the 46-to-60 minute range – which is where Luther, most episodes of Downton and nearly every American drama wind up – Sherlock has delivered essentially six feature-length movies, running 90 minutes apiece and each working somewhat as a standalone while also featuring enough recurring threads to tie together as a series.
There are many reasons this take on a character who’s been around for well over a century works, but the biggest is Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. You may recognize Cumberbatch as Khan in the just-released Star Trek: Into Darkness or from his turns in Atonement, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy or War Horse, but this was my first exposure to him. He owns every scene he’s in – and that’s to say, nearly every scene in the show – delivering some insanely long monologues to give Holmes a cocky and smug but still likeable confidence. We don’t need Holmes to be someone we want to hang out and have a beer with necessarily, but we need him to self-assuredly take the lead into situations that seem to have zero chance of a positive outcome. He’s also able to project just enough vulnerability to make you feel a little sympathetic for a guy who, while a genius in many ways, also has little consideration for a world that has tried time and again to shut him out.
Holmes’ foil and chronicler of his cases on an increasingly popular blog is of course Dr. Watson, played here by Martin Freeman (and most importantly, played by Not Lucy Liu). While Cumberbatch’s career has mostly taken place on the other side of the pond – he was the “Jim” character in the U.K. version of The Office – Freeman has had quite a few prominent roles in American movies, including Love Actually and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He also played Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which should be just about winding down on your Blu-Ray player if you started the movie on its March 19 home release date.
Freeman ostensibly needs to play the straight man to Cumberbatch – especially amusing since there are periodic references to outsiders wondering if they’re gay – but he isn’t afraid to occasionally put Holmes in his place while also interjecting some humor to the proceedings. You can see the affection each has for the other building throughout the series, in both cases surprising considering Holmes tends to exist in his own self-righteous bubble with little regard for outside assistance.
The stories, as far as my limited knowledge of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s works can tell, are at least partial adaptations of some of Holmes’ most popular stories, and there a number of details – sometimes readily apparent but often more in the background – that should leave even the most ardent Holmes fan nodding in approval. But they do so while fully committing to making this a purely modern-day adaptation, and creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss do a particularly impressive job visually. We get to see text-message exchanges and thoughts floating through Holmes’ head with some pretty brilliant on-screen graphics, a technique that’s definitely been used since but I don’t recall seeing prior to this series debuting in 2010.
Without giving much away, Holmes’ most prominent villain shows up at some point in the series for what was supposed to be a one-time appearance. But Irish actor Andrew Scott was so creepily convincing as Jim Moriarty that he pops up more often, to great effect. The Holmes-Moriarty relationship here is almost a direct descendent of the Batman-Joker relationship in The Dark Knight – one scene in particular made me think I was watching Christopher Nolan’s work – and that’s certainly a compliment.
There’s an episode or two that manages to make some seemingly simple plots a bit more convoluted due to the need to fill the 90-or-so-minute run time, and I would be curious to see how it would fare with six 45-minute shows. But that would likely turn Sherlock into more of a procedural crime show than the mini-movies we wind up with, and the last thing anyone wants a classic work like this to turn into is CSI: Baker Street. Three more episodes are due out sometime in the fall, so do yourself a favor and catch up before then.
As soon as you’re done reading about James Lipton’s previous life as a pimp.
CHECKING THE SCORE: 4.5 stars out of 5.