The greatest actors don’t just pretend to be a character — they actually become that character, so perfectly embodying a fictional persona that their performance transcends mere acting. And that’s exactly the kind of performance given by British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the BBC’s smartly-written, modern update of the famous Sherlock Holmes detective stories.
Cumberbatch truly is Sherlock Holmes, and he was a delight to watch in the first season of the BBC’s “Sherlock.” And the good news for fans is, the second season of the show (which just finished airing on PBS) also is excellent.
“Sherlock” takes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective and transplants him to modern-day London. Cumberbatch’s Holmes serves as a “consulting detective,” aided by his friend Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), who also blogs about Holmes’ adventures. The second season of the show updates several of Doyle’s most famous detective tales, having Holmes cross paths with the elusive femme fatale Irene Adler, investigate the “hounds of Baskerville,” and puzzle over Moriarty’s “final problem.”
However, the show doesn’t just take these classic stories and set them in the present day; script writers actually completely re-imagine the tales, taking cues from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original writings and coming up with entirely new mysteries (in other words, even if you’ve read the original Sherlock Holmes stories, you won’t necessarily be able to predict how the episodes will turn out).
In episode one, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” the British government is trying to gain control of compromising photos and other secrets Irene Adler has stored on her cell phone. In episode two, “The Hounds of Baskerville,” Holmes and Watson help a young man who claims to have been attacked by a gigantic hound. Though it is rumored a monstrous dog escaped from the Baskerville military research base, which may or may not be creating mutated creatures, what is actually going on may be something even stranger and more sinister. In the final episode, “The Reichenbach Fall,” Moriarty commits what is called “the crime of the century” and simultaneously breaks into the case where the Crown Jewels are kept, the vault at the Bank of England and the Pentonville Prison, and then mysteriously just allows himself to be caught. The episode culminates with a showdown between Holmes and Moriarty high atop a building: a confrontation neither one of them will walk away from unscathed.
I know it’s cliché to use the phrase “a part an actor was born to play,” but I truly think Cumberbatch was born to play Sherlock Holmes. He captures Holmes’ quirks and eccentricities and makes us care about the character, despite his flaws. He’s brilliant, but he has trouble interacting with people on a personal level.
We do get to see some rare moments of vulnerability from Holmes this season. Though Holmes is notorious for his lack of people skills and isn’t one to admit to having emotions (at one point, Watson even refers to him as “Spock”), he is troubled by his inability to stop Moriarty. Holmes may not have a lot of friends, but he truly does care about the friends he does have (Watson, Lestrade and Mrs. Hudson), and he fears what Moriarty may do to them. Holmes may be at times a frustratingly over-confident narcissist, but he wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice his life to save his friends — a choice Moriarty may indeed call upon him to make.
Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson is a great foil for Cumberbatch’s Holmes. By now, Watson has learned how to hold his own against Holmes, and he is (for the most part) used to Holmes’ eccentricities. Though their friendship is a bit dysfunctional, they truly have begun to work as a team, and they’ve recognized they work much better together than they do apart.
Cumberbatch and Freeman are joined by a fantastic supporting cast, including Rupert Graves as Lestrade, Mark Gatiss as Sherlock’s brother Mycroft Holmes, and Lara Pulver as Irene Adler. I also love the show’s creative special effects. Instead of showing us the screen on a phone when a character receives a text message, the words from the message pop up in the air next to the character. Another great, and similar, use of this technique is Holmes’ brainstorming session during the “Hounds of Baskerville” episode. We get a chance to peek inside Holmes’ mind (which is, of course, constantly running at 100 miles an hour). Words and pictures flash onto the screen and then quickly disappear as Holmes sorts through his theories and ideas. It’s a great way to display Holmes’ thought process.
My only complaint about the show is that the seasons only have three episodes each, which isn’t nearly enough for such a clever, well-written and well-acted show. The ending of season two leaves several questions unanswered, but the BBC has announced it will be shooting a third season.
Season two recently finished airing in the United States on PBS, but if you missed it, you can watch it for a limited time for free at the Masterpiece Theatre website.