Proposition: the British series Sherlock, beginning a second three-episode run on the PBS series Masterpiece Mystery on May 6, may well be the most delight-instilling television detective series ever filmed.
There may be better shows overall; Homicide, The Wire, and Luther come immediately to mind. But for material that makes you repeatedly revel in the joy of intelligence and ingenuity, little is in the class of this transmuting of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classics into the 21st Century.
The series does not simply update Doyle’s plotlines by injecting cell phones and horseless carriages. The show’s creators Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss have invented completely new stories that are crucially informed by more modern psychiatric insights, character interaction and a troubled zeitgeist that riff on Doyle’s tales while honoring the canon.
On the rare occasions that you can see what’s coming, it’s actually a pleasure because it’s confirmation of your own intelligence. Don’t get used to it; it won’t happen often.
Yes, Sherlock, Watson, Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, Moriarty and Irene Adler are all present, but each is a perfectly credible modern day counterpart.
For instance, Sherlock remains a thinking machine, but here his inability to deal with fellow human beings is more pronounced, the fallout more tragic and his brilliance has a whiff of high-functioning autism. Moriarty is not simply a criminal genius, but an unnerving psychopath who indulges in crime as an exercise for his love of pure evil for its own sake. And Irene Adler’s blackmail scheme...well, it’s nothing Doyle's original editors ever contemplated.
Besides the cunnigly-constructed plotlines and incisive character explorations, one of the series’ joys is its perverse joy in finding analogs between its world and Doyle’s. As with the first episodes, it’s not remotely required to be a Sherlockian to enjoy this series, but the scores upon scores of wry meta-references and inside jokes make it infinitely more rich for members of the Baker Street Irregulars.
The depth of knowledge of the lore to reach that elevated level of appreciation means that purists like my late father would love this series. Even the titles contain both clues to the current stories and plays on the originals: such as A Scandal in Belgravia (as opposed to Bohemia), The Hounds of Baskerville (notice the plural) and The Reichenbach Fall (notice the singular).
Among the dozen novel conceits is using graphics to illustrate what we have never been privy to before: the actual interior thought process of Holmes’ rapid fire ratiocination without him having to articulate them.
Each episode has deadly serious overtones, but the writers inject a good deal of gallows humor and lampoons their character’s expense. En route to testifying at a trial Watson advises Holmes at length to avoid long answers or being a smart-ass. Holmes, who acerbically alienates everyone, answers, “I’ll just be myself,” which of course is precisely what Watson is warning against.
The entire cast is back, thank goodness. Tall, slender with a mop of unruly hair and piercing eyes, the oddly good-looking Benedict Cumberbatch is simply brilliant in the title role of a man uncomfortable in the corporeal world, virtually a naïf. He disdains the occasional invasion of human emotions not simply because they cloud logic. He secretly fears them because for all his intellectual prowess, he does not understand them, especially when he feels something himself.
Martin Freeman (soon to star in The Hobbit) is a distinctly un-fuddyduddy Watson, brave, intelligent, loyal, resourceful and a surgeon who saw action in the Mideast. He is also the grease and salve that makes it possible for the decidedly asocial Holmes to function in the real world where his eccentricities in extremis would otherwise have him locked up as insane or beaten to death in an alley behind a pub—or find him a suicide out of loneliness.
The guest cast is superb from terrified Russell Tovey (he of the big ears in Being Human) to the delectable Lara Pulver (MI-5’s last season as well as Claudine Crane in True Blood) creating an indelible character as the dominatrix/master criminal Irene Adler. And there has never been a more unnerving, implacable Moriarty as Andrew Scott.
The series also benefits from deft direction and imaginative editing, especially the “wipes” when a character walks across a scene and changes the environment behind him as he crosses.
The biggest change in this series is that while cell phones and technology still play a role in the investigatory process, Holmes does not rely as heavily on a seemingly impossible command of the use of Smartphones as an instant source of data.
This Sherlock is a thoroughly thrilling exercise for thinking television viewers.
The game is afoot.
The second season of Sherlock airs at 9 pm Sundays on PBS. Check your local listings for time changes and encores.
Here are the episodes
May 6: A Scandal in Belgravia
May 13: The Hounds of Baskerville
May 20: The Reichenbach Fall
Photo: Top: Benedict Cumbersnatch, seated, as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. Watson. Center: Cumbersnatch, left, and Freeman. PBS photos