My annual ranking of the 30 MLB farm systems is up for Insiders. The top 100 follows tomorrow, with chats at noon ET (Spanish) and 1 pm ET (English).
I admit to some reluctance to watch the BBC series Sherlock, which takes the famed detective character and reimagines him in the present day, solving crimes loosely based on some of the original stories by Arthur Conan Doyle. I didn’t expect to like a series that so dramatically alters the setting of the original, and inevitably changes the character as well, but it’s surprisingly well done and engaging despite the occasional bit of TV-friendly drama to keep the hoi polloi interested. (The first season just aired on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery last month.)
Rather than directly adapt Conan Doyle’s stories into individual episodes, series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss chose to write new stories based on one or more of the originals, stretching them out to about 88 minutes apiece, with three episodes per season. Benedict Cumberbatch, who played a significant supporting role in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, plays the title character, a “consulting detective” who solves crimes the police can’t and keeps a blog on his exploits, infusing Holmes with substantial charisma despite his incredible aloofness and professed disinterest in human connections. Martin Freeman (of the UK version of The Office and the middling film adaptation of Hitchhiker’s Guide) plays Dr. John Watson, an Afghan war veteran paired up with Holmes by chance, forming an uneasy working relationship that’s more balanced than the partnership in Conan Doyle’s works, with Watson actually standing up for himself when he thinks Holmes is merely trying to humiliate him. (It doesn’t work, but at least he tried.)
The first season comprises three episodes, with the final one the tightest all around as the characters had become more developed and the crime (and its solution) was more clever and intricate. The first episode, “A Study in Pink,” has to get the two main characters together and define all manner of relationships within the show, and then has a drawn-out standoff between Sherlock and the killer because the BBC asked the producers to add another 30 minutes to the original hourlong show; the second episode was more focused on the crime, but the denouement was also over the top and involved a character who threatens to throw off the show’s equilibrium. The series does put Sherlock in danger a bit too often – while he did die in one of the original short stories, only to be resurrected by a recalcitrant Conan Doyle due to reader demand – even though we know he has to live till the next episode, making the drama from those scenes seem a little false, although I suppose it would be just as absurd to have the main character never find himself in any jeopardy at all.
Comparing Cumberbatch’s Holmes to the character from Conan Doyle’s stories is an exercise in frustration; I view the new Sherlock as inspired by the original character, rather than a mere adaptation. The series puts Sherlock in more situations that explore his lack of social skills, and Watson is more than just a foil for Holmes’ genius, providing commentary on Holmes’ bizarre behavior and personality. I did find myself regularly comparing this Sherlock Holmes to another TV character inspired by the literary one, Dr. Gregory House.
House is an unlikely protagonist for an American TV series, an antihero who aims for perfect rationality in his life and behavior, who solves cases for their puzzle aspects rather than any human elements, who abhors religion and other forms of authority, an unpleasant character you like because he’s clever, not because you love to hate him. Yet despite his claims of rational thought, he shows a malicious streak under the guise of flouting authority or establishing how much his superiors need him, whereas neither the literary Holmes nor the new BBC version exhibit any such behavior. Cumberbatch’s Holmes can be insulting – his line to Watson and a police officers, “Dear God, what is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring,” is brilliantly dismissive – but there’s no malice involved.
In just three episodes so far, we see subtle hints that Sherlock is aware he doesn’t quite fit in and might even be a little sad or ashamed about it, such as the time he lies to a potential client about how he knew the latter had recently traveled around the world. He’s arrogant, while House is misanthropic; Sherlock calls himself a sociopath (in response to the accusation that he’s a psychopath), but despite their shared focus on solving the puzzle for its own sake, Sherlock shows more glimmers of humanity in three episodes than House has in eight seasons. House has to rely on humor to make the show watchable, and with the show becoming less funny and its lead character more spiteful, the show’s quality has declined noticeably. Sherlock has some humor, but the stories and the two lead characters can drive the show on their own because there’s more to see and understand in the title character than there is in Dr. House.
Finally, it wouldn’t be a Klaw review of a British series without a mention of Foyle’s War, tied to Sherlock by (at least) a significant guest-starring role by Andrew Scott (who also appeared in The Hour). DCS Foyle is nothing like Holmes, of course; he has a normal range of emotions, but keeps them inside, producing a brooding, melancholy exterior that has become sharper with age. But what the two detectives do share is an attention to detail that characterizes most great literary detectives as well – crimes are solved when the investigator identifies some tiny inconsistency that exposes a wider range of evidence against the guilty party. Holmes solves his crimes through research, Foyle through interrogation, but both solve via deduction. The shows particularly differ in pacing, however – the London-based Sherlock moves quickly, not just in editing, but in dialogue and action, while Foyle’s War is almost leisurely and methodical, reflecting its bucolic setting and the illusion of peace while a war rages mere miles away. So if you’re a Sherlock fan looking for another British mystery series while you wait for season two to arrive here, give Foyle’s War a try.