“Sherlock”: I <3 Benedict Cumberbatch by Matilda Dixon-Smith

Posted on February 13, 2012

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Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, unlikely action heroes in "Sherlock".

Sherlock is one of the latest of these appropriation experiments. Leave it to the BBC to take every piece of cherished literature and tart it up for the techno-savvy masses (forever scrambling to remain relevant).

Thankfully, Sherlock is the complete opposite of a disaster, which one might infer it to be considering the rather dated source material. You would think that an asexual, antisocial, opium-addled detective who solves cases using pure intellect and deduction would be somewhat out of place amongst the current populace. Though Guy Ritchie may be trying to convince us, through his foggy blockbuster interpretations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, that Sherlock Holmes has a place in our world, I would never have thought it germane. But here, in the form of a sumptuous television series, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have proved that their idiosyncratic anti-hero belongs in our contemporary consciousness.

Uber-Modern: the "Sherlock" intertitle.

This new series begins with Dr. John Watson’s return from duty in Afghanistan. Being injured, and on a soldier’s pension, John cannot afford to live alone in London. A friend introduces him to a brusque, inscrutable young man named Sherlock Holmes, and the two decide to move together into a shared flat: 221B Baker Street. Sherlock is a ‘consulting detective’, an invented occupation which basically means he harasses Scotland Yard (in particular the rather hard-done-by D.I. Lestrade) and solves seemingly impossible cases for free. The first of these is “A Study In Pink”, a series of apparently ‘linked suicides’ and an ultimately thrilling mystery. Currently there are two series, each consisting of three 90-minute episodes. As a viewer, it’s difficult not to develop a sort-of lavish compulsion to watch more and more Sherlock, even though the episodes are feature-length

There is a lot to love, even at first glance. The direction is slick, tight; the writing thrilling and wry. The mysteries, adapted from Doyle’s original stories, are imbued with a gung-ho modernity (the ultimate example being the excellent “Hound of Baskerville” episode). The photography is delightfully droll; contemporary London has been interpreted here as a cold, lonely city filled with misery and misconnection.

Moffat and Gatiss, in collaboration with the consummate ‘brilliant man’ Benedict Cumberbatch, have fashioned a Sherlock who unquestionably belongs in the modern age. In this adaptation, Sherlock is not just an eccentric, or a “bohemian”, but a (self-prescribed) “high-functioning sociopath”. He is arrogant, alienated and aloof, yet he fills every scene with an odd playfulness, particularly the ones in which he interacts with Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson. Watson, who in Doyle’s stories is a portly figure of gentle ridicule, shines in this adaptation. Freeman has discovered John’s bravery, his fierce loyalty, and his unfaltering compassion. Most of this is directed towards Cumberbatch’s complicated Sherlock.

Benedict Cumberbatch's signature "Sherlock" brow furrow.

Indeed, nothing is more brilliant than the representation of the tender yet super-charged relationship between John and Sherlock. These two men who live together, work together, and who clearly inspire the greatest warmth and solace in one another encourage questions regarding the status of their relationship. The writers understand this and monopolise on it, usually for comedic effect. Concomitantly, they go straight to the heart of the contemporary psyche, and this accounts for much of Sherlock’s vibrancy. The writers recognise in Sherlock and John a certain trepidation, but despite continued raised eyebrows at their close relationship, they just go ahead and keep being what they are. I’m sure it’s this conviction which has inspired the online fan-fiction community to take up the John/Sherlock narrative with such gusto (go ahead and Google “John and Sherlock fan-fiction” to see what I mean). Despite the propensity of this show’s creators to play the “confirmed bachelors” card for comedic effect, they represent the struggle that might arise when one tries to decipher the meaning of an unconventional relationship that can only be described as ‘soulmate’. Put in simpler terms, this Holmes and Watson are the last word in the bromance phenomenon.

Those romancing bros, Sherlock and John.

The writers’ ability to balance this tenderness against a determined sense of quirk and playfulness is what makes Sherlock so utterly spell-binding. Really, the show is all about character, and the charisma that oozes from every person who shares the screen with Cumberbatch and Freeman. From the hopeless but doggedly charming D.I. Lestrade (played by the lovely Rupert Graves), to silly old Mrs Hudson (Una Stubbs), who is so sweet she inspires Sherlock to toss an offending thug out a window in her honour, the whole cast is colourful and magnetic. I was also a great fan of Lara Pulver’s clever dominatrix Irene Adler in series two’s “A Scandal In Belgravia”. Her tenacity gives John and Sherlock’s relationship a much-needed shake-up.

Part murder mystery, part romance, with just a modicum of science fiction, it doesn’t really matter which category you put Sherlock in, as it remains the only show I’ve ever watched where the eponymous character would say “Get out! I have to go to my mind palace.”

Series two of “Sherlock” is premiering in Australia on Wednesday, February 15, at 8:30 pm on Channel 9. 

Matilda Dixon-Smith is You’re Dripping Egg’s co-creator and editor-in-chief. She’s a self-confessed television addict with a soft spot for a good bromance. For more of her British TV reviews, have a gander at ‘Wot-the fock-is bronch’: The Return of “Misfits”.

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Posted in: Television