Sherlock: Series 1 (review)

Benedict Cumberbatch Martin Freeman Sherlock

Game On

The second series of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s brilliant, brilliant Sherlock is about to start tomorrow, and so my hand is forced: I must finally write about the first series. The reason I’ve put it off isn’t simple procrastination. The reason I’ve put it off is because every time I contemplate the notion of sitting down and writing about it, I am overcome with a dread that anything I write will reduce it to something smaller and boringer and less than the utterly fantastic thing that it is.
I love these three movie-length episodes to a degree that’s sort of terrifying. I never tire of rewatching them. Every time I’ve imagined that this was the moment in which I would finally write about them, I used that as an excuse to watch them again, so it’s been like four or five go-rounds at least so far. The cleverness of the writing, the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson, the wit of the visuals, the sheer all-encompassing magnificence of it — it all leads me to conclude that this is the third most perfect TV series ever (after Life on Mars and Slings and Arrows). Everything about it is perfect. Even the score is amazing.

Here’s (partly) why it’s so great. We tend to forget that when Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes in 1887, the world’s first consulting detective was a wholly modern man on the cutting edge, often beyond. He used technology with gusto; he advocated methods of forensics and criminal psychology that wouldn’t come to fruition in the real world until a century later. But now we live in a world of FBI profilers such as Fox Mulder and Clarice Starling, and we live in a world in which sending telegrams seems ridiculously old-fashioned. Conan Doyle’s Holmes, no matter his allure, feels like something of a relic to us today. His quaintness is probably a big part of his appeal. But quaint he is.

Moffat and Gatiss kicked that quaint in the ass, and reminded us how just plain fresh and progressive and exciting Holmes is — surely this is how Holmes felt to Victorian readers, too. How Moffat and Gatiss updated Holmes is even funny, and yet not in the least bit campy, as it so easily could have been (especially considering the goofy black hole into which Moffat is pushing his Doctor Who). In a way, it’s hardly even an update. I mean, of course Holmes loves texting: it’s today’s equivalent of telegrams, down to how we abbreviate to save characters. Of course a blog is how Watson would tell the tales of his adventures with Holmes; of course a Web site is how Holmes would monograph his theories of crime detection. And taxis now have internal combustion engines instead of horses, but they’re still a good way to get around London (especially now that the congestion charge has reduced traffic). It’s all funny because it’s not funny, because it shows off how little the world has changed, in some ways: we still want to communicate quickly, to move around quickly; the city is still full of bustling mystery, still full of diverse people doing strange and dangerous things. The things that feel secretive and enigmatic — diplomacy; banking; even the anonymity of city life — still feel that way, and whodunits can be effectively created around them.

But there’s authentic humor bubbling up from Moffat’s and Gatiss’s awareness of the tropes of Sherlock Holmes, and their awareness of our awareness. They know we know all the bits (“Come at once if convenient, if not convenient come all the same”) and all the clichés. A 21st-century Holmes may be unable to maintain a smoking habit in health-conscious London, so he slaps on some replacement nicotine to solve a “three-patch problem.” So clever, the suspense inherent in not telling us, at first, which character Gatiss himself is portraying in the first episode, “A Study in Pink”: the writers know we’re guessing that he must be either Moriarty or Mycroft… and the fact that one actor speaking only a few sinister lines might be either Holmes’s archnemesis or his own smarter, well-connected, and hugely useful brother underscores the intrigue of Holmes’s world, and why we love it so very much.

And yet the very real appeal of Holmes is regularly undercut, too. Holmes himself knows he is a “high-functioning sociopath” — whacking him with that frankly terrifying 21st-century label while also making him such a wonderfully rude bastard leaves us feeling more ambivalent about Holmes than we might otherwise. If only Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Creation) — who might be the most perfect Holmes ever — didn’t then add another layer of magnetism, complicating the matter all the more. His Holmes is cold, unfeeling, bad-mannered, and downright meanspirited (as when he uses the appeal he clearly knows he has to manipulate the hapless lovestruck coroner in episode 2, “The Blind Banker”) and yet he couldn’t be more attractive. He’s Spock, he’s Data, he’s the romantic nut that’s impossible to crack, and impossible to resist trying to crack, in one’s fantasy imagination.

Martin Freeman’s (What’s Your Number?, Swinging with the Finkels) Watson is more captivating — and more complicated — than any Watson has even been before… even if his Watson has just returned from the same damn war in the same damn country his Victorian predecessor did. He’s no more a hero, in the traditional sense, than Holmes is, than Holmes flat out says he isn’t — “Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.” Holmes may be a sociopath, but Watson isn’t, and he misses the adrenaline rush of war, and admits as much.

Then there’s The Question: What, precisely, is the nature of Holmes and Watson’s relationship? Fans of Conan Doyle have debated this since forever, and Watson’s canonical marriage aside, Holmes’s disdain for women has lead to some obvious assumptions. Moffat and Gatiss attack it head on, and have everyone Holmes and Watson encounter express perfect comfort with the notion that they’re a couple. Even if they aren’t. No. 126,924 on the list of things that are perfect.

Well, okay, not everything is perfect. The first story, “A Study in Pink”? I totally sussed the answer to the big mystery — who hides in a crowd, etc — before Sherlock did. In fact, I was sure he’d guessed it at the same time I did, and then was shocked to see that he hadn’t. Is the central puzzle of at least the first episode too easy? Even if it is, this hardly detracts from Sherlock’s perfection, because it’s all too easy to let that slide in light of everything else that works so well.

In fact, perhaps the only infuriating thing about Series 1 is the cliffhanger ending. But now that’s about to be resolved, or at least the teasing will be continued, with Series 2. Hoorah!

(next: “A Scandal in Belgravia”)

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