Today we have a guest writer -- Bill Hirschman who has written TV reviews and profiles for Mystery Scene. Bill's last feature was on theater master Rupert Holmes. Bill is a lifelong fan of Sherlock Holmes, a habit he acquired from his father. Bill is a theater critic in the South Florida area; his reviews can be found at southfloridatheaterreview.com. He also is married to our regular blog writer, Oline H. Cogdill.
By Bill Hirschman
In the BBC’s 21st Century reinvention of Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective has traded his pipe for nicotine patches, his laboratory beakers for an electron microscope and his library for the World Wide Web.
But his quirky, anti-social genius is gloriously intact in the three-episode series Sherlock – to be broadcast Oct. 24, Oct. 31 and Nov. 7 on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery! Check your local PBS affliliate for times and encore presentations.
The creators, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat of the current Doctor Who, have delivered the most ingenious and addictive job of deconstructing and reconstructing Holmes seen on film since 1979’s Murder by Decree.
They are helped immeasurably by the casting. The lanky Benedict Cumberbatch inhabits the preternaturally brilliant but asocial-cripple Holmes who one police detective taunts with appropriate name “Freak. ” The “normal-looking” but equally haunted Martin Freeman is a compassionate and intelligent Watson just back from serving in
If Sherlock simply transported the original stories to present day London, it would be a mild curiosity and a transitory trick not worth the viewer’s time. The same can be said if the meat of the show was nothing but clever modern analogs for the original traits and touchstones – although they are fiercely inventive here.
Instead, Gatiss and Moffat have taken the canonical A Study in Scarlet, The Adventure of the Dancing Men and The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans as jumping off points for fresh, sophisticated and intricate detective stories that are organically drawn from the 21st Century. The style of presentation is contemporary film with rapid-fire editing and camera work – and yet, underneath, there is that same adoration of intelligence and adventure that imbued Conan Doyle’s work.
Certainly, there are scores of wrly subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to the canon: The first episode is titled A Study in Pink and the word “rache” is scrawled next to a dead body. When one of Scotland Yard’s detectives notes that the word is German for revenge, exactly as Holmes did in the original story, the new Holmes accurately
deflates the theory.
The updating is simply inspired. Holmes doesn’t shoot the initials V.R. in the wall, but creates the outline of a smiley face, also an emblem of establishment complacency. Watson writes up their cases for a blog, initially started as a therapeutic vent for his psychological pain. The familiar black boxy taxis drop the duo off at 221B, not a
Hansom cab. I won’t even spoil who the Baker Street Irregulars are. And Moriarity is as terrifying a force as he’s ever been portrayed -- but not for the reasons you’d expect.
But the tenor can turn dark and dramatic as the stock Victorian figures become frighteningly realistic and credible as contemporary threats, from the formidable hired assassin in the gloom to the psychotic serial killer to the specter of a urban bombers.
Even darker are the explorations of just how much Holmes’ genius is a personal curse. Lestrade may appreciate Holmes’ gifts, but another detective warns Watson not to get too close because Holmes is a psychopathic as likely to be guilty of criminal violence as his quarry.
And when Holmes seemingly allows a victim to die in order to continue a duel of wits with Moriarity, he is censured by Watson.
Holmes answers, “I’ve disappointed you…. Don’t make people into heroes, John. Heroes don’t exist and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.”
To that end, this updated Sherlock is not so much about differences so much as heavier emphases. On top of the puzzle-solving and superhuman feats of detection, these are character studies of two damaged people who are all the more appealing for their acknowledgement of their wounds and their refusal to seek an iota of accommodation
for them from the rest of the world – no matter the emotional cost.
Credit the cast for the skill to deliver lines without hardly a shred of self-aware archness, such as:
SHERLOCK: (Looking out on the deserted street) Look at that, Mrs. Hudson -- quiet, calm, peaceful. Isn’t it hateful?
HUDSON: (Teasing) I’m sure something will turn up, Sherlock. A nice murder to cheer you up.
SHERLOCK: (Not getting the joke) It can’t come too soon.
Slightly scruffy as if he had no time for vanities, Holmes dresses in a black overcoat with high upturned collar and long muffler. Tall and slender with light blue irises, Sherlock has a mop of unruly black hair as untamed as his intellect his tamed. A lover of technology, he coaxes information from laptops and smartphones like a virtuoso
elicits a masterpiece from a piano. He rattles off long chains of precise deductions at dizzying speed.
While Holmes may recognize stationary as coming from Bohemia, he needs Watson to provide “useless” facts like the Earth revolves around the sun.
The sophistication of the writing is exemplified when a mysterious cerebral man who describes himself as Holmes’ arch-enemy tells Watson that a psychiatrist’s diagnosis that Watson’s limp is psychosomatic is accurate, but not as fallout from seeing the horrors of war, but because he misses the war. And there is a major twist later in the episode that will force you to review the same scene later with an additional piece of information – a deft trick by screenwriters who know how to manipulate the audience.
The three episodes are: A Study In Pink in which seemingly unconnected people commit suicide but which Holmes realizes is the work of a serial killer. The Blind Banker finds Holmes linking murders where the killer has left a mysterious code.
The Great Game (an unacknowledged riff on Kipling’s term for espionage in Kim) depicts brother Mycroft asking Sherlock to recover some stolen missile plans, but our hero is occupied in trying to catch a monster who puts hostages in explosive vests while challenging Sherlock to solve puzzle-like crimes under a literal deadline.
The show was an immediate hit when it bowed in Great Britain in July. Although the three-episode series ends with a cliffhanging standoff worthy of the Reichenbach Falls, the team has been trying to schedule when to produce another three episodes slated for broadcast in England in the fall of 2011. We can hardly wait until it emigrates over
For more information, see www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00t4pgh. It has links to Sherlock’s website and Watson’s blog.
Photo: Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman PBS photo