In times of stress, I turn to Sherlock Holmes. When I’m in a book-flinging mood where bestsellers are irritating and classics make me want to slit my wrists, Sherlock Holmes is my morphia. I read the stories over and over, each sentence stands alone as a work of art. A nightly chore is the attempt to distract myself from daily stress before I try to sleep, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories get it done.
I’ve watched most of the Sherlock Holmes movies out there and some series were pretty good, such as the one with Jeremy Brett. Others try to cast Holmes in Jack the Ripper scenarios or other plots not in the original stories, and that’s fine with me, but so many of these productions completely miss the essence of Doyle’s character (see The Terrible Things People Do to Sherlock Holmes). Guy Ritchie’s movie Sherlock Holmes was even pretty good, though an absolute fabrication and in Ritchie’s trademark way, too violent.
But nothing has reached me like Masterpiece Mystery! Sherlock, originally presented on BBC, then aired on PBS in 2010 and now available on Netflix. They only made 3 episodes and have promised more in the fall. I have always wondered how Sherlock Holmes would translate to 21st century technology—Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who created these new stories, show us how it’s done.
This version of Holmes is thornier. His retorts are more barbed and impatient, but brilliantly delivered. He’s not a blowhard like in some books and movies. He doesn’t brag, he states facts. Physically, he’s tall and thin and handsome in a wraithlike way. I love the closeups of his strange and beautiful visage and its many expressions. Even the music is perfect for the show—not old, not new, but an ethereal air played off and on throughout the show that underscores the horrors being perpetrated without resorting to melodramatic violins or modern rock remixes. It sticks with you when the show ends.
In this series Holmes and Watson are known as Sherlock and John, the way we would informally address people now. John Watson, like the original, is an ex-army doctor fresh from a modern-day tour in Afghanistan. Sherlock has his own website, and John blogs about the cases they solve. Sherlock is a wizard with smartphones and computers, of course he would be. He finds so much information instantly on his smartphone that I wonder if he subscribes to database sites like Lexus Nexus. The viewer sees what he looks for online, and some of it seems as if it would be unavailable to normal users. Snippets of Doyle’s original stories are superbly intermixed—but not expanded upon—and I wonder if the writers almost had to do that because of modern technology. I’m not a purist, I’m much more interested in good writing and characterization so I love what they’ve done.
As Holmes responds to accusations from a local officer that he’s a “psychopath,” he says, “I am not a psychopath, I’m a highly functioning sociopath. Do your research.” And so he is, and we don’t want him to change. Benedict Cumberbatch pulls it off beautifully, and Watson is played sympathetically by Martin Freeman. This Watson is streetwise, depressed, gets irritated with Holmes, but craves the adventure. In this series Lestrade and Sherlock get along well and Lestrade allows Sherlock a lot of freedom. But the very best scenes are the interactions between Sherlock and John alone. They are often mistaken for gay partners, a modern assumption and something naturally never mentioned in the late-Victorian originals, and it’s amusing to see them fend off well-meaning remarks how it’s perfectly OK to be gay.
I love the way Sherlock redeems his brusque personality at the end of each show. He and Watson walk off, trading quips and laughing. I always put the subtitles on so I don’t miss a word, and I’ve watched these three episodes at least five times each. The third episode ends in a cliffhanger as Holmes clashes with a much more sadistic Moriarty than the original, this one comes with bombs, and they’ve promised more episodes in the fall.
I must take utmost care to never watch or listen to an interview with Benedict Cumberbatch. I don’t want to know him personally because, as in many characters we love, finding out that they’re simply good actors and not much else is a letdown. Let us have our Sherlock and John then. Let them solve their cases with brilliance, wit, and dark humor. It’s all about the writing anyway. Let it wash over me and give me hope that all is not lost.