In recent years, the screen incarnations of Sherlock Holmes have been invariably better in concept than execution. The iconic standard set in the 1930s and 1940s by the teaming of Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce shouldn't have been, to be honest, terribly difficult to equal or even surpass: nearly all are watchable (I'm partial to The Hound of the Baskervilles ), none great; yet Rathbone and Bruce owned their roles so completely that subsequent interpretations have swung wildly -- often out of desperation -- to create something different. The Holmes-meets-Freud Seven-Percent-Solution (1976) has its moments, most of them (as I recall, it's been ages) belonging to Alan Arkin. But in the 80s, a pair of original spins that sounded great on paper -- Holmes as a teenager (Young Sherlock Holmes) and as a dunce (Without a Clue) -- were deadlier than a Moriarty plot and a lot duller. Last year, Guy Ritchie's film "reimagined" Holmes (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) as a slo-mo-punching, explosion-evading action hero, if that idea had anything to do with imagination.
So I groaned upon hearing that Sherlock, the new Masterpiece Mystery series on PBS, would update the detective's adventures to 21st century London. (This being originally British television, a "series" consists of three episodes.) I was wrong, though. Whereas Ritchie flopped bringing his hyped-up filmmaking style to a 19th-century tale, the creators of Sherlock (Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, who collaborated on the revised Doctor Who) employ classical storytelling to depict Sherlock Holmes in the modern age. Last week's premiere episode, "A Study in Pink," moved at breakneck speed (rarely have eighty minutes felt like forty), but the tempo never felt strenuous. Indeed, in our era of texting and online searching (both of which are effortlessly brought into the story), the pacing seemed appropriate.
It also sidesteps the most irritating element in Doyle's books, frequently adapted to the screen: the parts where Holmes brings everything to a halt so he can belabor how he cracked the case and make Watson look like a fool. Those passages, which should be highlights, come across instead as the work of an intellectual sadist (Holmes and Doyle both). One of the best things about the new Sherlock is how little tolerance its main characters have for tiresome shenanigans. Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) still has his violin and his flat on Baker Street, yet he moves fast and talks faster, spitting out reams of dialogue that resemble the staccato rhythms of an Aaron Sorkin script. A "consultant" to the police, Sherlock makes his unwelcome presence felt at a crime scene, talking smack with the detectives who think he's a psychopath and a freak ("I'm a high-level sociopath," he counters), and quickly moves on. As Holmes's new flatmate and partner on cases, Watson (Martin Freeman) initially follows with a limp and a cane (from an injury, possibly psychosomatic, suffered in Afghanistan), but his admiration for his cohort's brilliance stops short of blind devotion. Nor does the good doctor suffer fools: Brought to an ominous underground garage by a man who calls himself Holmes's archrival and shows disdain for Holmes's "over-reliance on dramatics," Watson counters by saying, "Because you're above that sort of thing."
Cumberbatch and Freeman make a splendidly witty team, neither too chummy nor too hostile toward each other. (Both actors are also on the rise -- Cumberbatch in Steven Spielberg's upcoming War Horse and Freeman to be the star of The Hobbit -- so enjoy them as relative unknowns while you can.) Although each character is allotted his own identity, what both have in common is an aversion to boredom. Holmes and Watson love the thrill of the chase, and the case in "A Study in Pink" is a pretty good one about a seemingly random string of suicides connected by an unusual method. With two more episodes to go (this Sunday, October 31, and next Sunday, November 7), Sherlock is a
reboot to get behind.