Monday, November 22, 2010

Sherlock Holmes-- The Original Mentalist

Some stories are timeless. I loved the big-screen version of "Sherlock Holmes" with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. It wasn't perfect, but it was atmospheric and had a wonderful 19th century sensibility. So when I was offered the chance to review the newest take on Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock) that originally aired on the BBC, I didn't hesitate to accept. But I was surprised when I got the discs to see that the show was set in modern-day London--which shows how well I read the synopsis when it was sent over. But the BBC knew what they were doing when they moved Sherlock Holmes from the late-1800's to today as Holmes isn't about the setting or the accouterments; it's all about his incredible mind.

I haven't read anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in years, so my memory of the Holmes canon is sketchy at best. And as much as I hate to keep bringing Robert Downey Jr.'s portrayal into a review of the new series, it's impossible not to use him as a benchmark as his characterization is what is foremost in my mind when I think of the character. But once I saw Benedict Cumberbatch's ("Atonement") take on the modern version of Sherlock Holmes, I had no problem setting a new standard and seeing Cumberbatch as the definitive Holmes.

The first season of "Sherlock Holmes" only consists of three 90 minute episodes that not only gives us a good dose of Holmes' formidable intellect, but establishes the origins of his friendship with Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman). Both Holmes and Watson are the kind of men who have a hard time settling into a normal existence, but for different reasons. Watson, injured in the war in Afghanistan, hobbles around with a cane and a limp his psychiatrist says is psychosomatic, while Holmes lives a lonely life among the piles of clutter in his apartment at 221B Baker Street. A chance meeting with a mutual friend leads to an introduction between the two men and an unlikely partnership is born.

The first case that the two men work on is a strange series of apparent suicides. Holmes is brought in as a consultant to the investigation. Brilliant as he is-- and Holmes is one of a kind-- he is also abrasive and it quickly becomes obvious that Watson has a unique ability to tolerate Holmes' personality and it isn't long before Holmes leans on Watson's tolerance; often to Watson's chagrin. The cases Holmes and Watson investigate in each episode are, in the end, incidental to the really important aspects of the story. Is isn't the mystery as much as it's Holmes approach. When watching Sherlock use his powers of observation to decipher a crime scene it's impossible not to see the similarities between this show and The Mentalist, but "Sherlock" is far-and-away the superior series.

Cumberbatch's portrayal of Holmes has been described as "Aspergerish," though it has become common to say any character with obsessive tendencies must have Asperger's Syndrome. Whether Cumberbatch uses that as his inspiration or not, he does bring a single-mindedness to Holmes that is as endearing to watch as it would be off-putting to experience in real life. Holmes doesn't have empathy-- that's what Dr. Watson's character is for. What Holmes does have is an insatiable curiosity and an ego that won't allow him to walk away from a mystery even if his life is at risk. What makes the story of Sherlock Holmes really work is the balancing effect of Dr. Watson.

Because this series is so early in its development it's hard to know how true it will stay to the original stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle-- though I think the intent is to stay close to its inspiration. So far there have been allusions to Holmes' past drug use and penchant for playing the violin as well as the obvious disarray of his apartment. Watson's character is quiet and steady and altogether as essential to the narrative as Holmes. The biggest change appears to be the modern setting, but it really isn't much of a change at all. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are basically the template from which all buddy-cop shows come from and the story works no matter when it is set-- everything else is superfluous. There is also a very natural feeling the pairing of Cumberbatch and Freeman. The show would fail if the friendship between the two wasn't believable and they click right from the start.

I really enjoyed "Sherlock" due to the cleverness of Holmes' deductive powers and its droll humor. The show can seem a bit overlong at 90 minutes due to the limitations as a television drama. There are times when the villains can seem slightly cartoonish because the murder-of-the-week story-lines have a tendency to be a bit pedestrian-- though not as simplistic as "The Mentalist" can be thanks to our American craving for the 'Hollywood ending.' "Sherlock" is wonderfully acted and and excellent example of English humor and understatement. For those who don't get the BBC channel, "Sherlock" can also be seen on PBS. Definitely check this one out if you get the chance.

11 comments:

Jamie Gibbs (Mithril Wisdom) said...

I've yet to watch episodes 2 and 3 of Sherlock, but what I've seen is insanely impressive. I was blown over by the way a modern day adaptation was executed, and the pairing of Cumberbatch and Freeman was a very good move. Good point on the Aspergerish elements of Holmes' personality too, I didn't notice that first time round. Great review, I'll be sure to get this on DVD come Christmas.

SQT said...

Thanks Jamie. It is a really good show. I loved both the lead actors. As much as I like Downey, this is a character that needs authenticity and this show really brings it.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

I loved this too and I'm really hoping it goes to a full series soon (this is a sort of miniseries-pilot.) Only one element didn't ring true for me as a UK citizen - despite the line of work, it's unusual and generally illegal for a civilian to carry a pistol in modern day UK, although it would be reasonable in another country or another time.

Stewart Sternberg said...

This was an amazing show. I hope we'll see more than the initial offering of three episodes. It was so fresh and edgy. There will be some who moan that it isn't truly Holmesian, that it veers too far from the original flavor of the canon. But there will always be those who stand in the way of invention and new expression.

Glad to see you are promoting this. I will be buying this blu-ray.

SQT said...

Gene-- the next season is already scheduled to air in the fall. Same format, three 90-minute episodes. I also assumed that Watson isn't supposed to be in possession of the gun. Which is why he didn't tell Holmes (though Holmes knowing about it is a given) or the investigators after the first case.

Stewart-- I think this works really well. The more I see, the more I'm impressed by the two leads. They are just so good. I'm glad to see that word is already spreading about the show.

Lightning Bug's Butt said...

That reminds me: I have to put Sherlock Holmes in my Netflix queue.

I never watch PBS. I tend to fall unconscious.

SQT said...

LBB-- I am so with you on PBS.

Lightning Bug's Butt said...

Have fun making the limoncello, SQT. And let me know how it comes out!

SQT said...

Oh I will. Count on it.

wheels209 said...

Hi SQT,
I love Holmes. However, I am old school. Basil Rathbone is my benchmark. Another good Holmes for me is Jeremy Brett. Downey jr. did a good job capturing the flavor of Holmes but the plot of the movie was a bust for me. I looked for Sherlock on Dish no go so far but I will keep trying to find it.

Have a great Thanksgiving my friend.
Steve

SQT said...

Wheels-- It's hard to say if you'd like this or not. I do think it's better than the big screen version. I think I liked the muscularity of Downey's portrayal, but agree it fell apart at the end. This one is totally different but I think it works. It's still very English. I got it on Blu-Ray so I'm sure it's available as a rental. It's worth a look for sure.