Sherlock: A Study in Pink (Review)
A Contemporary Sherlock Holmes
BBC Wales's Sherlock is the latest re-imagination of Sherlock Holmes. Unlike previous iterations, this series is a truly contemporary interpretation of Sherlock Holmes stories, characters, and settings. The series' first episode, entitled "A Study in Pink", is based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet; however, the episode has enough new twists and stylish flourishes to sustain the interest of viewers familiar with the story.
Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a "consulting detective" to Scotland Yard. Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) gives Holmes lots of leeway, though his subordinates don't share the same trust. Being a part-time detective probably doesn't pay much, though, for Holmes is in need of a flatmate. He's soon introduced to Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman, perhaps best known for his role on The Office with Ricky Gervais). The two are no sooner flatmates than they are working together. "Brilliant! Yes!" cackles Holmes when Lestrade asks for his help on a case. "Four serial suicides, and now a note. Ah, it's Christmas!"
Twenty-First Century Detective Work
Unlike shows like CSI, where the techy aspects of crime-solving are mainly filler (may Sherlock never feature a montage of lab scenes set to electro beats), Holmes and Watson use technology in ways to which most viewers can relate. Holmes has his own web site, and Watson blogs. (Both of these become very important in a later episode.) To aid in the case, they do research on the internet, use smartphone apps such as weather lookups and maps, and text rather than make traditional phone calls.
Not that Sherlock Holmes has gone completely high-tech and 21st-century. Holmes still uses a magnifying glass, and his brain is still his most important tool. He's also not a cocaine addict anymore, nor does he smoke a pipe. He does have an addiction, though, and how he takes his substitute drug is misleading and funny once its true nature is revealed.
It's 2010--Holmes Prefers Texting
Sherlock has a striking visual style, and central London manages to look both quaint and modern at the same time. The series often uses a particular conceit: instead of having text appear on a tiny smartphone screen, it displays onscreen beside the character typing or reading. However, one scene in which this does not work well is when Holmes is investigating a crime scene, and some hints of his thought process are shown, e.g., "dirty", "clean", "married 10 years", "serial adulterer". Although the effect is interesting, it renders Holmes's deductions less impressive than they would be if the viewer were hearing them for the first time when Holmes rattles them off to astonished onlookers.
Sherlock's Great Cast
Cumberbatch's Holmes offers much more than steely good looks. He's highly intelligent, funny, and shrewd. Make no mistake, though; he observes few social conventions that might endear him to others, and thus has no friends. Though it's fun to watch Holmes's swagger and childish exuberance, the script never lets us forget that he's not a wholly likeable man. Indeed, the self-proclaimed "high-functioning sociopath" takes unconcealed pleasure in using his deductive methods to humiliate others. And he frequently misreads (or disregards) social cues that most people would handle reasonably, such as the attentions of a female lab tech.
Freeman has a much harder job in playing the straight man. His Watson is an unassuming man who is haunted by his tour as a military doctor in Afghanistan (an update from Conan Doyle's stories, in which Watson was in the first Anglo-Afghan war). Watson's reserve covers a barely-suppressed tension, which stems from his inability to admit that he wasn't traumatised by the war; indeed, he thrived on it. "Oh, God--yes!" he says when Holmes asks if he wants to see a crime scene, even though getting involved would be dangerous.
The supporting cast is also terrific. Particularly good are Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson, the landlady for 221B Baker Street (and the only person with whom Holmes seems to have a warm-ish relationship). Graves, who's known for being in a few Merchant Ivory movies in the 1980s, is a pleasant surprise as a weathered and gravelly Lestrade.
Friends? No, Colleagues.
Detective work puts Holmes and Watson at great risk--a fact that both men relish. Although they are superficially dissimilar, they each have a lack in their everyday lives, and the prospect of a dangerous case rouse them, intellectually and physically. Another character muses that Watson "could be the making [of Holmes], or make him worse than ever". That is, will Watson's influence bring out a more human, compassionate side of Holmes, or will it just reinforce the cold, analytical aspects of his personality? The aptness of their pairing is remarked upon more than once; one of the show's running gags is that Holmes and Watson often get mistaken for a gay couple, much to Watson's irritation. Holmes, of course, doesn't care.
The Game is, er...On!
Though it may seem that this contemporary Sherlock Holmes is just another example of the stereotypically eccentric, somewhat unempathetic 'detective' (see Death Note's L, Gregory House--himself based on Holmes--and Temperance Brennan from Bones), remember that Conan Doyle's creation is the probably the eccentric detective's archetype, and certainly the English-speaking world's most well-known fictional detective.
The first episode of Sherlock is brisk and witty; it's also a very flashy, urban story. In other words, it's not Midsomer Murders (which I also like). My only complaint is that Holmes of all people should have realised who the culprit was long before he actually did (I think many viewers will catch on at least 20 minutes sooner). Still, "A Study in Pink" is both riveting and laugh-out-loud funny; and now I yearn to re-read Conan Doyle's stories. Whether or not you've read them, however, this series is highly recommended.
Note: Sherlock premieres on PBS in October 2010.