BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ a smart, witty update

Fans of Guy Ritchie’s 2009 “Sherlock Holmes” movie, starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, still have a week to wait until the much-anticipated sequel “A Game of Shadows” hits theaters. But if you’re looking for something to tide you over, I’d highly recommend the BBC’s imaginative, modern update on the Sherlock Holmes story called “Sherlock” (2010).

The three-part miniseries re-envisions the famous literary detective Sherlock Holmes as a modern-day private investigator living in London. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) become unlikely friends and work together to solve several cases.

I’ll admit, I was initially skeptical about the concept. I’m always a little nervous whenever someone announces they want to make a modern update of a literary classic. Often a book’s historical setting is part of its magic, and it’s as much a part of the story as the characters. It’s for this reason I’ve never watched “Clueless,” a modern update of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” The historical English setting of Austen’s novels — and the social customs and contexts that come with it — defines the stories she tells.

But when I was on vacation in London last summer, “Sherlock” happened to be playing on one of the channels, and I caught the end of the first episode. And it wasn’t long before I was hooked.

“Sherlock” succeeds because while it updates the setting from Victorian England to modern times, it gets the portrayals of the characters right. Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Freeman’s Watson behave just as you’d expect Holmes and Watson to behave if they were transported to London in 2010. Holmes’ tools of investigation may be more modern — laptops, cell phones, etc. — but he’s still the same brilliant and eccentric crime-solving mastermind that readers have come to love through Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective tales.

The show is clever and witty, and while it perhaps takes a few cues from Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” film, it portrays its own version of the Holmes stories. The cases themselves are interesting — a series of apparent serial suicides that may not be suicides after all; a mysterious Chinese crime ring known as the “Black Lotus”; and, of course, an encounter with Holmes’ most famous opponent, “Moriarty” — but the real draw of the show is the characters. Holmes may be one of the most famous narcissists in literature, but his friendship with Dr. Watson (who in this version of the story is an army doctor recently returned from Afghanistan) is genuine. Cumberbatch and Freeman were perfect choices for their roles, and they interact well together.

The show has a great cliffhanger ending, and I’ve anxiously been awaiting the second season. It’s premiering in Britain in January 2012, and also will air on PBS in May.

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7 thoughts on “BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ a smart, witty update

  1. I love Sherlock. I found it on Netflix while searching for Stephen Moffat TV shows. Moffat is in charge of the new Doctor Who and also made a modern version of Jekyll & Hyde called Jekyll that is worth checking out if you can find it (it is also available on Netflix). In all three of these shows, he takes an enormous egomaniac, smartest person in the room, with no discernible social skills, who frequently talks down to everyone around him and makes them… loveable. Sherlock is fantastic but I think Moffat’s version and Ritchie’s version have very little in common besides the source material and the implication or blatant assertion that Mr Holmes is Bisexual. I am a HUGE Sherlock Holmes fan. The first non-children’s book I ever owned was The Complete Sherlock Holmes leather-bound. And I love both the TV show and the new movie. I understand what you mean by updated & re-imagined classics, though. I felt the same way about Shakespeare for the longest time. But after being bombarded from all sides for so long, I finally gave in and now I think Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet is an amazing film. Great post. Love your blog.

  2. Thanks! 🙂 I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, and I’ll have to check out “Jekyll,” and “Romeo + Juliet” as well. I think you made a good point about Moffat’s ability to take characters that on paper may not seem very likable but turn them into heroes beloved by fans. I agree – BBC’s “Sherlock” and Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes” are very different, but both great, takes on the Sherlock Holmes story. I can’t wait for the sequel this weekend.

  3. Yes, more love for the amazing Stephen Moffat! And Doctor Who! As far as I know Sherlock, Doctor Who (most of the new series/some of the old), and Jekyll are all on Netflix. Out of the three I’d rank them Doctor Who, Sherlock, and Jekyll, but part of that is from being a nerdy fan of Doctor Who.

    I liked Jekyll and thought it was a nice take, but to me the series ran a bit long and it was a bit hard getting into. The end also got a bit odd. Still good though, but nowhere near the level of Sherlock or Who.

    • You are right. Jekyll does sort of jump-the-shark toward the end. I think mostly because they fast forward through what should have been a long running series instead of just 6 episodes and done. But right in the middle (eps 2, 3 & 4) there is some amazing television, Great casting, great acting and a great story. It just gets a little convoluted toward the end. Which happens when you keep trying to top yourself each episodes. A problem I noticed with Russell Davies Doctor Who run (and then Torchwood). He kept making the jeopardy bigger and bigger until it got a bit overblown. But my list is the same Doctor Who first (Moffat’s episodes even during Davies’ time [Blink, Silence in the Library] are my favorites) then Sherlock and Jekyll.

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