Sherlock Holmes belongs to a fairly exclusive club, one occupied by other august (and Victorian) personages like Tarzan and Count Dracula. He is, simply, one of the most played, most adapted, most revised, most re-invented figures in fiction. According to Guinness, he's been portrayed by 75 actors in 211 films. This doesn't take into account stage or television.
These days we have at least three major incarnations of Holmes in play; well, two-and-a-half at least. We have Guy Ritchie's absurd over-the-top action Holmes, played by Robert Downey Jr. We have Hugh Laurie's House, who qualifies as the "half Holmes." This tale of a drug-addicted, interpersonal-relationship challenged mystery-solving genius was clearly inspired by Conan Doyle's detective, even in name ("Holmes" becomes "House," "Watson" becomes "Wilson"). But clearly the best of the bunch is the BBC's wunderkind, which despite consisting of only a handful of 90-minute episodes stretched over two seasons (or "series," to be British about it) is the best Holmes you've seen since Jeremy Brett.
Sherlock is a modern retelling of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries. Think Holmes and Watson in the 21st century and you've got it. We've seen adaptations of this kind before--the whackiest by far being 1987's dreadful The Return of Sherlock Holmes, where the great detective is thawed out after a century in cryogenic sleep (an idea so stupid it was recycled again in 1994 in Sherlock Holmes Returns). Sherlock is different. It doesn't bring Holmes and Watson into the present, it portrays them as belonging here.
Watson, played to perfection by The Office alumnus and soon-to-be-Bilbo-Baggins Martin Freeman, is an Afghan war veteran suffering PTSD. Encouraged to blog about the war and his recovery by his therapist, he ends up encountering the eccentric Holmes and blogging all about him instead, turning him into a kind of pop culture icon. This is a smart update of the tradition John Watson, an Army doctor who turned Holmes into a celebrity by writing about him. Freeman's portrayal manages to remain very faithful to Conan Doyle while at the same time giving Watson modern context and issues. He has precisely the right blend of exasperation, hero-worship, and protectiveness of Holmes that made the character the original Samwise Gamgee (couldn't resist another hobbit reference).
But the show is called Sherlock, and what sinks or swims any adaptation is the actor who takes on Holmes. This time it is the improbably named Benedict Cumberbatch, whose take on this played-to-death character is so freaking good you can't take your eyes off of it.
Cumberbatch's Holmes is a faithful incarnation; he is a genius whose racing mind never slows down, and unless has an impossible puzzle to work on starts tearing itself apart. The more negative aspects of the character are accentuated. Always a bit aloof and arrogant, this Holmes is so inside his own head he barely acknowledges the existence of other people. Like Hugh Laurie's House he is so charm-free that he's charming. Somehow.
The stories themselves are loose adaptations of Conan Doyle, again, brilliantly done. Series creator and writer Steven Moffat--who knows all about brilliant reinventions of characters after his smashing version of Doctor Who--excellently keeps the mysteries fresh with enough winks and nods to the Holmes tradition to keep devoted fans tickled. Case in point, his handling of the famous deerstalker cap, a piece of headgear we all associate with Holmes that he never actually wore. In Moffat's hands Holmes grabs the cap to quickly disguise himself, but is photographed in it and made such a celebrity in Watson's blog that the public (to his fury) immediately identifies him with it. This is just one of many touches that make the series excellent.
It is this triple blow of two wonderful lead actors and superb writing that make Sherlock must-see television, whether you're a Conan Doyle fan or not. In a world where Holmes has been played to death by a long line of leading actors, turned into Japanese anime, and even been portrayed by Kermit the Frog, the BBC's current revision is shockingly fresh.
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