Review: Sherlock

I got around to watching the new BBC series Sherlock, showing in the US as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Theater.

There have been many reconceptualizations of the iconic character of Sherlock Holmes, not all of them successful. The recent film version with Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude was a buddy action movie and I found the hyperactivity just barely tolerable. The 1980s and 90s BBC series with Jeremy Brett as Holmes and two different actors as Watson were perhaps the best of the lot so far, with Brett in particular capturing the edginess and nervous energy of Holmes.

Despite being a huge fan of the Holmes stories, I at first resisted the temptation to watch the new series because it was set in the modern day. I have read and re-read the entire Holmes oeuvre several times and love the entire ambiance of Victorian England, with its horse-drawn carriages, gas-lit streets, dark and gloomy moors, and so on. I did not want to let go of those images and also did not think that Holmes’s methods of deduction would translate well in the modern era.

But people kept telling me how good the new series was and so on Netflix I watched the first episode of the first season and I am glad to report that I was wrong. The show was excellent and I plan on watching the entire series. Each episode is 90 minutes long so it is really a feature film. The creators have retained an important element of the original stories’ appeal in that it is more than solving the big puzzle, the delight comes in all the little puzzles that are solved along the way.

The title of the first episode was A Study in Pink and is loosely based on the first Holmes novel A Study in Scarlet. The small change in the title slyly gives a hint of how the writers have conceived the new series, using some of the basic plot elements and even dialogue of the original but making enough changes that it could be considered a new story. The first episode tells of the meeting of Holmes and Dr. John Watson and their first mystery together, involving a string of apparent suicides that seem to have no connection with one another apart from the method of death. While it retains sufficient details of the original story and remains largely true to the main characters, the elements of modern life are embraced rather than downplayed, with cell phones, text messages, GPS tracking, and the internet playing central roles. Watson is now a blogger.

I had not seen Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Holmes) in anything before but he captures well how a young Holmes might have behaved these days, still tightly wound and arrogant and condescending to those whom he sees as his mental inferiors, but more exuberant and less formal than his Victorian counterpart. But the real casting coup was selecting Martin Freeman to play Watson. Although his role is nominally that of a second fiddle, he is essential to the stories’ success. The early black and white films with Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes suffered grievously from Nigel Bruce’s portrayal of Dr. Watson as a buffoon. The Watson of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories was stoic, brave, and somewhat unimaginative but definitely not a bumbling fool. Freeman, who was in The Office (UK) and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is perfect for the role, down to his everyman visage. He also has a nice touch for comedy and his Watson is not as worshipful of Holmes. He admires his skills but also does not hesitate to express his exasperation with him and his disapproval of some of his actions.

Holmes aficionados pore over the texts and know practically every detail by heart. They treat them as real and examine seeming contradictions and anachronisms in the stories and devise ingenious ways to try and reconcile them so that the contradictions disappear. Their efforts are similar to those of Biblical literalists who try to find ways to reconcile the contradictions in the Bible, except that the Sherlockians accept that ultimately the stories are fictional and that what they are doing is just a fun exercise.

The writers of this new series clearly know that devoted Holmes fans are a picky and demanding lot and cater to them by throwing in little bits of esoteric information and dialogue from the stories that will generate nods of delighted recognition by us addicts. For example, in the original stories Watson is introduced as having just been discharged from the British army after being wounded in Afghanistan, but seems a bit confused about exactly where he was shot, initially saying it was in his shoulder and in later stories referring to the pain in his wounded leg. The writers address this by having his therapist(!) and Holmes suggest that his limp and use of a cane to aid walking are purely psychosomatic, thus getting rid of that particular contradiction.

One thing I am looking forward to is that Sherlock Holmes’s brother Mycroft may be playing a more prominent role in the new series. His appearances in the stories were always intriguing and too few in my opinion.

Here’s the trailer for the new series.

I will review the later episodes as I see them.


  1. Jenna says

    Always so glad to find new people discovering/liking the series. (and btw, glad to have found this website in general through the random RT on twitter that had the link!) Although the first episode remains my favorite because it introduces the characters and relationship so well, I am confident you will like the rest as well. #2 probably my least favorite but still good and stick with it. #6 made people worldwide obsessed with the show (and, btw, Benedict Cumberbatch)

  2. vel says

    absolutely love this show. Making Watson a Afghanistan war vet was brilliant and he is absolutely perfect and a great counter to Holmes. I will have to admit that I’m not that impressed with Moriarty. But all of the shows are indeed worth watching and seeing how things are built upon.

  3. slc1 says

    I would agree with Prof. Singham about the portrayal of Watson by Nigel Bruce. The two actors who portrayed the Watson character in in the 1980s TV series were much better.

    However, I must take issue with the good professor’s claim about Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of Holmes. Although it was tolerable in the first series, it became quite tiresome in later episodes. I still think that Basil Rathbone was the quintessential Holmes.

  4. Humanists Harbor says

    They’re so different but I think Cumberbatch may be Brett’s equal. (Rathbone is so boring.)

    FYI: Yesterday a group of us in NYC saw the filmed version of last year’s National Theatre presentation of Frankenstein, with Cumberbatch as the creature and Jonny Lee Miller, who is playing Sherlock in an upcoming American tv show on CBS, as Dr. Frankenstein. Tonight they’re showing the reverse cast, with Cumberbatch as Frankenstein.

  5. Mano Singham says

    In the original stories, Watson was actually injured in Afghanistan as well, so that worked out well for the writers.

    Of course Afghanistan, being the sad victim of “The Great Game”, has been dealing with foreign occupiers for ages so having someone injured in that country’s wars seems timeless.

  6. Rory says

    I love Moriarty, personally. He seems like he’s about one bad day away from complete, raving psychosis. He’s almost a force of nature. I felt like the second season finale makes him seem a little too omnipotent, but I can live with it. I have to keep an eye out for that actor in other projects.

  7. left0ver1under says

    I very much enjoyed Jeremy Brett’s Holmes more than any other, though I much preferred Edward Hardwicke as Watson rather than David Burke. I still can’t like Burke after his portrayal of Stalin in “Reilly: Ace of Spies”, 30 years after the fact.

    If you do want to see a Holmes/Watson “buddy” film, go watch Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley’s “Without A Clue”. It adds to the myth of Holmes without taking itself too seriously.

  8. Art says

    My only objection, as rather small, niggling, as it might be is that being shown in a single ninety minute sitting I feel a bit cheated. Too much of a good thing delivered too fast to savor and enjoy it.

    I’m used to BBC/PBS Mystery fare that comes in smaller doses but every week for a time. Makes my week to remember there is a show on and to make something of an event of it. I liked planning ahead so that company, if they are amenable, fresh popped popcorn, and an event worthy of preparation come together harmoniously.

    The all-in-one taut piece, ninety minute, version leaves scarcely a moment for snuggling and nibbling, and next week it is on to something different. The local station rebroadcasts the show much later that night and it is well done enough to stand up to a second viewing. Fact being I catch things the second time round that I missed the first showing.

    Still, I kind of think dividing it up a bit might be good. You would have to have some sort of review for each following episode but the extra time spent would give more allowance for distractions and could expand it to a more generous format.
    Formatting it to be broken up into serialized episodes, with reviews, would make it more like the original Doyle release as I understand it. It would force a reworking of the screenplay but it would also allow more time to explore the characters.

    All that said I do think “Sherlock” is one of the best things to show up on TV in a very long time.

  9. Jared A says


    I have never read the sherlock holmes books, but on your recommendation I may pick a few up sometime.

    Have you ever read any Agatha Christie? I started reading hers in college as a diversion from my academic work. She writes with startling skill, and I strongly recommend.

  10. Mano Singham says

    I was a HUGE fan of Agatha Christie. I think it is quite possible that I have read at least 95% of all her books, and she was a prolific writer.

  11. Jared A says

    Glad to hear it! She has such unassuming books that contain absolute labyrinths.

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