Page to Screen: Sherlock – Season One (2010)

based on the Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Fandom, thou cruel mistress. Over the summer, everyone in the Doctor Who fandom turned their attention to Steven Moffat’s newest project, Sherlock. To a woman, they loved it–and thus began my desperate attempts to plug my ears until it came Stateside, no matter how tempting or lovely the outpouring of fanworks looked. (Sometimes the old Anglophilia is a curse.) But finally, I got a chance to see it; during the end of October and beginning of November, PBS aired all three episodes of Sherlock’s first season. (American television seasons are, naturally, foreign to British television; a season or series of Sherlock is composed of three ninety-minute stories.)

Sherlock takes the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson and places them firmly into twenty-first century London. John is still an Afghan war veteran, returning home and adjusting to civilian life–including looking for a place to stay. An old friend introduces him to prospective roommate Sherlock Holmes, a strange man who works as a consulting detective. After a rocky start, the two become friends, and John becomes Sherlock’s partner in fighting crime (because God help us all if Sherlock turns to crime, as characters occasionally note).

Moffat and Gatiss (who plays Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother) have updated the characters seamlessly. The antisocial Sherlock prefers to text rather than call (indeed, we first encounter him wrecking havoc during a press conference the much put-upon Lestrade is giving), John’s brother’s watch becomes John’s sister’s cell phone (analyzed much the same way), and Sherlock is still very much a man who needs a case or he’ll resort to shooting the wall to entertain himself. While the show borrows elements liberally from the original stories, it’s never slavish–the first episode, “A Study in Pink”, actually pokes fun at the clue of “RACHE”, using the story’s false meaning as their true meaning. Even the confusion over where Watson is actually injured is literalized as John’s psychosomatic limp in response to a wounded shoulder. It’s quite slick, although I do hope they’ll eventually address what’s different in a world where Doyle’s Holmes never existed. It would be great fun.

The very cuddly Martin Freeman is our John Watson, and the spectacularly named Benedict Cumberbatch is our Holmes, who, when accused of being a psychopath, corrects his accuser–he’s a high-functioning sociopath, thank you very much. Cumberbatch brings a sort of alien aloofness to Sherlock; his face is boyish, his height is imposing, and he speaks lowly and quickly, forever several steps ahead of everyone else and, while masking it with calm, clearly frustrated by the stupidity of those around him. Freeman’s John also has the same sort of mask; underneath his fairly cuddly Everyman exterior, he’s a man who functions best on the battlefield or when in danger–exactly the sort of situation Sherlock recklessly seeks out to cure his eternal boredom. The core of any Holmes adaptation, I think, is the rapport between Holmes and Watson, and it’s absolutely wonderful here. Watson’s interest in and admiration for Sherlock tempers Sherlock’s antisocial tendencies. In a scene adapted from the novel, Sherlock cleverly and carelessly reveals how he concluded that Watson was an Afghan veteran, and John is pleasantly astounded–but Sherlock is equally astounded to find someone who doesn’t tell him to piss off. Marvelously, the series doesn’t shrug off or ignore the (ocean of) subtext of Sherlock and John’s relationship–it deals with it head on. There’s a marvelous scene in “A Study in Pink” where John, a bit fed up with everyone assuming they’re boyfriends (what with their suddenly moving in together and all), asks Sherlock about his love life to figure out where he stands; Sherlock assumes he’s offering and turns him down gently, being married to his work and all. (I have to say, I’m pleased as punch that Cumberbatch and the production team consider Sherlock ace.) The rest of the cast is lovely, including Rupert Graves as Lestrade, a gravelly-voiced DI who relies on Sherlock but holds him at arm’s length, Una Stubbs as Sherlock and John’s cheerful landlady (not the housekeeper, as she often tells the boys when they ask for tea or food), and Louise Brealey as Molly Hooper, Sherlock’s mousy lab assistant who has a mildly desperate crush on him. Poor girl.

It’s filmed beautifully; London is perpetually gray (perfect for crime dramas!), we’ve plenty of CSI-esque shots of Sherlock at work in the lab, and I particularly love the way the camera frames faces in this series. Sometimes the blending cuts can get a bit silly–the third episode, “The Great Game”, can get carried away with doors from one scene opening into another–but it usually works. I’m not sure if this is just me or not, but I can detect the influence of Hans Zimmer’s score from Sherlock Holmes in the score here, which delights me to no end. The editing is tight and the cinematography lovely. Unfortunately, this series of Sherlock ends on a particularly frustrating cliffhanger–so frustrating, in fact, that I’m downright impressed. Bravo, Moffat and Gatiss–that takes courage. Luckily, there’s more on the way–the next series is coming in 2011. (To British shores. No idea about Stateside.)

Bottom line: A slick update that puts Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson firmly in the twenty-first century, Sherlock succeeds wildly. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are so marvelous playing off each other as Sherlock and John that the series barely needs its lovely cinematography and snappy writing that’s never slavish to the original stories. It’s quite a treat.

I watched this series online for free at PBS’s website.

13 thoughts on “Page to Screen: Sherlock – Season One (2010)

  1. Hmm. I wonder if this is one of the times when I regret not having a TV, since your review makes this sound amazing (I am a big fan of Holmes)… Oh well, there’s always the DVD set!

    Also, Mark Gatiss is absurdly talented.

  2. I watched this series as well and I loved it. I was a bit worried about a “modern day” Sherlock, but they executed it wonderfully. The casting was perfect. I agree that the cliffhanger was rough though.

  3. I’m so torn about this… on the one hand, it looks amazing and I really, really want to watch it, but on the other hand, even though Benedict Cumberbatch is a talented actor, I am incapable of seeing him as anybody other the skeevy guy from Atonement, so I don’t know how I feel about him taking on Holmes.

  4. I love that his name is Benedict Cumberbatch. How much Britisher could any single person’s name be? And I thought Martin Freeman was marvelous as Watson — I liked it at the end of the last series that he went a bit wobbly after having a really scary experience. Yay for that! Scary stuff is scary! You can’t always just walk it off like they usually do in the movies. It drives me crazy when people on TV and in films get mugged or assaulted or whatever, and twenty seconds later they’re fine.

  5. Interesting to read your remarks on the Sherlock series. I hope you have seen series 2 as well? (I can hardly wait for the third season!) When watching this, I have been so impressed by the way the managed to move Sherlock to our time without destroying the essence of him. I love the series, Benedict Cumberbatch is amazing and the relationship between Watson and Sherlock just works.

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