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Reviewed by Ross Ruediger
ringing Sherlock Holmes squarely into 2010 sounds too gimmicky to work, but the fact that it does may be only part of the reason “Sherlock” is such a surprise. The 19th century iconography the Holmes concept is mired in only exists because that’s when Arthur Conan Doyle wrote all those stories. As far as he was concerned, he was telling tales set in the present. It takes someone who really gets what this Holmes thing is all about to pull off a feat such as this update, and co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (both of “Doctor Who” fame) appear to relish the task. These guys are clearly drunk on Holmes. Nothing they’ve done taints the legacy; they’ve only added to it, and perhaps even whipped it into shape for audiences who might think the works of Conan Doyle are for stuffy old literature enthusiasts. If there’s one thing these three movies are not, it’s stuffy.
Here Sherlock Holmes is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who has an impossibly deep voice for the wiry, young man that he is. He does an exceptional job in the role of mad genius, and draws you in from his very first scene. Dr. John Watson, a military doctor back from Afghanistan, is brought to life by the wonderful Martin Freeman, who many people know at this point as the actor destined to breathe life into Bilbo Baggins in “The Hobbit.” Freeman also owns his role, and together the two make a perfect team, as they stumble into one another’s lives and take up residence at 221b Baker Street. Freeman may have scored the role of his career with Peter Jackson, but it’s only a matter of time until Cumberbatch gets top billing at the cinemas. It doesn’t take a sleuth to see that this guy’s destined for greatness.
The first of the three 90-minute tales, written by Moffat, is entitled “A Study in Pink,” and is very loosely based on the first Holmes novel ever, “A Study in Scarlet.” In this version, a series of suicides involving poisonous pills are occurring across London; Holmes deduces that they are in fact murders. Throughout the course of the adventure to get to the bottom of the mystery, we learn about Holmes’s world and his intricate mind as Watson observes his actions. For Watson, this new world brings an edge back to his life that he’s been missing since leaving the war. As the tale comes to a close, the seeds of a mysterious criminal organization are planted that continues to thread throughout the season.
“The Blind Banker” sees Holmes and Watson deciphering Chinese graffiti, as well as dealing with two dead bodies, which both eventually lead to a Chinese tong. After the introductory nature of the first story, this one has all the hallmarks of “the middle one” of a trilogy, as it continues to cement the friendship, while upping the danger ante.
The third and final story, entitled “The Great Game,” is written by Gatiss, and it may be the best of the lot, although it’s so densely layered and complicated I’m honestly going to have to watch it again to make that call. By this point, the Holmes/Watson team is a well-oiled machine as they tackle a warped series of bombings involving innocent victims. As the story progresses, it turns out whoever is behind the bombings is simply enjoying watching Holmes leap through hoops. This person is the dark mirror image of Holmes, and if you know your Conan Doyle lore, then you’ll also know exactly who I’m talking about. If you’re unfamiliar with Holmes, don’t sweat it. These aren’t in-jokes, and there’s no back story that you need to know in order to step into this complex universe.
Above all else, this take on Holmes is an immense amount of fun. Not fun in the goofy way that “Doctor Who” is fun, but rather a grave, serious sort of fun. These stories are as dark as they are light, which is an odd thing to say, no doubt, but also perhaps the perfect manner in which to describe this oddball universe in which danger lurks around every corner. Interestingly, the decision was made to end the season on a massive cliffhanger, which seems as if it may have been a gamble, but as it turns out, “Sherlock” did boffo ratings in the U.K. and Season Two is on the way. Let’s hope it goes into production before Freeman is whisked away to do “The Hobbit,” because it would be tough to wait two or three years to see where this is headed.
Special Features: There are commentary tracks on the first and third stories, featuring Gatiss, Moffat and producer Sue Vertue (Mrs. Moffat), and Cumberbatch, Freeman and Gatiss respectively. “Unlocking Sherlock” is a making-of featurette, and also present is the hour-long pilot for “A Study in Pink,” which features the same cast, only with a half-hour less to work with, the story isn’t as dense. Good thing the decision was made to bump these up to 90-minute productions, as the extra half-hour really gives this series a chance to breathe.