On paper, Sherlock sounds like something I wouldn’t want to watch—I mean, when was the last time you were excited because something that was old that you liked was being “updated”? Usually it just means that touches of modernity have been shoved into the script in a cynical appeal to younger viewers. Set in the present day, the BBC series features texting, and John Watson doesn’t write down his adventures with the master detective—he blogs about them! What makes the show work, though, is that it’s not ashamed of its source material. “Conan Doyle’s stories were never about frock coats and gas light,” cocreator Steven Moffat, known for his work rebooting Dr. Who, told the BBC. “They’re about brilliant detection, dreadful villains and blood-curdling crimes… Other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures, and that’s what matters.” Whereas Bryan Singer’s X-Men reboot mocked the comics’ yellow costumes, Sherlock lets Sherlock keep his deerstalker cap, albeit not without comment.
But the success of the show doesn’t depend on its balance of Holmes mythology and contemporary flourishes—it’s the strong writing for the two remarkable leads: Benedict Cumberbatch, who used the show as his Hollywood calling card, and Martin Freeman from The Hobbit, the original The Office, and elsewhere. The show is really about the friendship between these two unlikely partners. Despite what Moffat said about the importance of “adventure,” the show understands that it’s not actually what’s engaging; the first episode of the third season, which aired in the US last weekend, wasn’t compelling for its mysterious terrorist plot or its missing person impossibilities—it was for the interpersonal drama brought about by Holmes’s return to London after faking his suicide, which Watson didn’t know was fake. (As in the Conan Doyle stories, Holmes seemed to fall to his death, though in the series it was from a hospital roof, not the top of Reichenbach Falls.) The long and funny scene in which Sherlock surprises the mournful Watson, deeply damaged by the “death” of his companion, was riveting, as was the difficult process of putting their partnership back together.
If you’re not caught up, all six episodes of the first two seasons are on Netflix, but they’re a little trickier to marathon than your average TV series: each episode is 90 minutes, the series more like a film franchise released in clumps; you could easily consider that first episode of the third season to be Sherlock VII: The Empty Hearse. The second episode airs this Sunday, and the third and final episode the Sunday after that—Sherlock is always over almost as soon as it began, but for a few weeks it’s the best thing on TV.
Follow Henry Stewart on Twitter @henrycstewart