Why You Should Be Watching BBC's Sherlock

Today I have a new entry for what will be a recurring column here on the blog: Why You Should Be Watching... Last time I brought you an article on the fantastic NBC action/comedy Chuck. This time, I’m talking about another TV program: BBC’s Sherlock, created and written by Doctor Who alums Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss.  It stars Benedict Cumberbatch (How’s that for a name?) as the titular detective and Martin Freeman as his frequently-bewildered sidekick, Watson.

This is a relatively new show, but a few factors seem to have kept it from achieving recognition here across the pond: It’s only broadcast in North America on PBS and the first series only consists of three 90-minute episodes (making it more like a mini-series, at least in its format). Nevertheless, I watched the first episode on the PBS network last fall, and was immediately hooked.

Sherlock takes the classic Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and updates them to a modern-day London setting. Cumberbatch plays Holmes, a hyper-intelligent, self-described sociopath with an vaguely-defined day job who solves cases for New Scotland Yard (the equivalent of the FBI) for free in his spare time. Freeman is Dr. John Watson, a former British Army doctor who just got back from Afghanistan with a mild case of PTSD. Watson is introduced to Holmes by a mutual friend, and the show progresses from there – Watson is compelled to follow Holmes on his late-night mystery-solving adventures, and even ends up helping Holmes (but only occasionally, as Watson serves more as a foil for Holmes’ eccentricities).

Sherlock has a fascinating visual style: great wide-angle shots of London, a drained colour palette and smart editing. During a gripping on-foot chase scene in the first episode “A Study in Pink”, Holmes and Watson are jumping from rooftop to rooftop to head off a taxi containing a suspect. Holmes’ and Watson’s jumps are cross-cut with streetlights and road markings, so when Holmes goes to take a leap onto a fire escape, a “walking man” signal flashes on screen, and when they take a sharp left, it’s intercut with a corresponding painted arrow. Another cool touch is used when Holmes is examining evidence: dynamic hovering text appears on screen to show how Holmes is analyzing the crime scene.

What really sells Sherlock are the actors’ portrayals of these two classic characters. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is super-smart and he knows it. He viciously berates anyone with a lower intelligence (which is pretty much everyone):"Dear God, what is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring!". The audience delights in every insult he hurls at misunderstanding cops or suspects. He displays a child-like excitement about thrilling new case details. One of my favourite moments in “A Study in Pink” was when Holmes discovered the culprit was a serial killer, and promptly ran out the door yelling, “We've got a serial killer! Love those, there's always something to look forward to!”

Some details from the Conan Doyle stories had to be eliminated to make the jump to the 21st century. Holmes doesn’t wear the classic deerstalker cap (one of the writers commented that you couldn’t get away with that, even in modern-day London), and instead of a pipe (or opium habit!) Holmes uses multiple nicotine patches at once “to help him think”. But the series does pick up a few great tricks from its new setting, including texting (shown to the audience with that cool hovering text) and GPS tracking. One scene early in the first episode has Sherlock (before he’s even seen for the first time) sending simultaneous texts to reporters at a police news conference, bearing the message “Wrong!” as Detective-Inspector Lestrade offers his opinion of the latest rash of unexplained deaths.

Even though there are only three episodes of Sherlock available now, they're planning to shoot more once Martin Freeman gets a break from shooting The Hobbit in New Zealand for Peter Jackson (he’s playing Bilbo). The first series is available on iTunes and on a two disc DVD set (and I’m sure there are illegal downloads/torrents for it somewhere!) Check it out, and let me know what you think of it! I’ll be reviewing the new episodes as soon as they’re available.