Watson: So why do you put up with him?
Lestrade: Because Sherlock Holmes is a great man. And one day, if we’re very very lucky, he might even be a good one.
I’ve never read a single Sherlock Holmes book, but that doesn’t mean I’ve never experienced Sherlock Holmes. From House to Haruhi to the new movie adaptation last year, Holmes the character and archetype has saturated modern fiction in a way no other character can really claim. When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote A Study in Scarlet, he didn’t think of it as “inventing the detective genre”. He likely thought of it as a good story that people would like to read and in that measure, apparently, he was right. Sherlock is a new series from the BBC–well, new last August–that takes the classic Holmes and Watson duo from their late-Victorian (that’s right, right?) setting and plants them in the modern day. Yes, the premise sounds inconceivably dumb. Yes, it sounds like possibly the worst idea you could have for a new Sherlock Holmes series. Yes, yes, yes. I thought so too.
Thankfully, my mother sat me down and forced me to watch an episode all the way through. Sherlock is not a series in the conventional sense, instead being a trilogy of 90 minute made for British TV movies. It is also not a television series in the other conventional sense of being not that good. Sherlock is, without a doubt, the finest Holmes adaptation I’ve seen, being whipcrack smart, breakneck paced and equally funny, physical, mental and dramatic. There is no better example of this than first episode “A Study in Pink”. It all begins with Dr. John Watson, alone in bed in a small room, sweating off a dream about his recent traumatic experience in Afghanistan in the army. He runs into an old friend of his from Bart’s and tells him he’s having trouble finding a flatmate. His old friend says that’s the second time he’s heard that today. We all know where this is going.
The first time they meet each other, Holmes asks Watson: “Afghanistan or Iraq?” And with that question, Sherlock is off to the races. Replacing tobacco pipes with nicotine patches, chemistry for forensics and Afghanistan with… well, Afghanistan, it’s a shockingly faithful update of the original stories. I’ve never read A Study in Scarlet, but I take my mother’s word as gospel in this matter. You would too, my mother’s quite a big Holmes fan. I take it as gospel that these stories are faithful as possible to the original plotlines because of how closely they’ve followed the characters in updating them. The characters in the Holmes canon are the hardest part of the adaptation to get right. It’s easy to draw Holmes as a dashing rogue anti-hero, show Watson as a bumbling fat lardassed fool and Lestrade as a comic caricature of stupidity. Everyone in this adaptation has a quiet dignity and intelligence to themselves–quite refreshing.
The case this week is that of four serial suicides. Four people have killed themselves in exactly the same way, despite not knowing each other or being related in any way. While the initial three suicides are conspicuous enough to draw attention from lethargic and uninterested Holmes, it’s the fourth that manages to draw him to a crime scene. There, the victim, clad entirely in pink, has scrawled “Rache” on the floor. Holmes extrapolates from the colour of her coat and the splash marks on her ankle that she was only staying overnight in London and has left her travel case somewhere. When it’s revealed that it isn’t in the house, the game is on. Who walks among us, all day every day, ignored and unseen by everyone? The answer might be a bit obvious to those accustomed to Lost-era mystery TV, but it doesn’t matter–the plot takes enough twists and turns to rack up a serious fare on its way to the conclusion.
Highlights of this new series and its approach to the Holmes canon include all the trappings of the 21st century that make themselves known. The writers spoke in interviews about Sherlock’s insatiable lust for new methods and knowledge. You can see this even in the opening chapter of A Study in Scarlet, where Holmes finds a way to detect blood that has long since dried. This translates into an insatiable lust for all things digital and knowledge giving. He has a smartphone, runs his own website (“The Science of Deduction”) and keeps a regular blog about all of his solved cases. He is still the world’s only consulting detective and with good reason, using Watson’s cell phone as evidence of why he isn’t living with his alcoholic brother. GPS plays a pivotal role in the climax of the case.
The funniest way the modern era makes its presence known in Sherlock is that wherever Sherlock and John go, be it dinner while staking out an apartment or investigating a flatshare at 221B Baker Street, they are mistaken for gay lovers. I understand that two men this conspicuously close would lead to assumptions. I’ve always had a soft spot for very good friendships on television, Alan Shore and Denny Crane being one of my favourite pair of characters in recent history. It’s nice to see male bonding portrayed as normal and to be celebrated in these days of romantic prioritization. The characters themselves have a bit to say about constantly being assumed homosexuals, Sherlock less so than John. Which is source for yet more humour.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle left more than the legacy of detective fiction behind him when he wrote the Sherlock Holmes canon. He also left the idea of the odd couple pairing of heroes–specifically the narrator protagonist who, in his own story, would seem perfect and the fascinatingly flawed and antisocial hero. Again, I know they’ve made a good adaptation with this series because they got Watson right. And after over a hundred years of bumbling, jam-liking buffoons playing Watson, it’s nice to see a dashing, handsome, intelligent lady-killer in the role.
Overall, this first episode is perhaps 90 of the best minutes of television I’ve ever seen. And trust me, I’ve watched a lot of television.