In this age of ambivalence, a purely cerebral hero is particularly welcome.
It would be unfair to say that the BBC production is the best Sherlock Holmes ever: There have been so many, and so many great ones. But it is certainly the right one for right now.
There is no easy explanation for why this Arthur Conan Doyle character has such a lasting hold on the public imagination; possibly only Dracula has had as many incarnations. And that may be a clue to the detective’s enduring popularity. Vampires, after all, supposedly symbolise uncontrolled desire and repressed sexuality. It could be that more than almost any other sleuth, Sherlock Holmes represents logic and the unapologetic triumph of reason over emotion. And especially in this age of ambivalence and subjectivity, a purely cerebral hero is particularly welcome.
Sherlock stars Benedict Cumberbatch and was created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who), and they, of course, depict the hero as freakishly smart and oddly talented. This Sherlock is also lissome, spirited and briskly energetic; most important, the famous detective isn’t turned inside out to suit current, navel-gazing fashions. Sherlock jokes about his chilly British upbringing with his older brother, Mycroft (played by Gatiss), but his psychic deprivations and sexual orientation go largely unexplored. When Sherlock tells Watson (Martin Freeman) “the game is on”, it’s an invitation to help him solve the case, not explore his innermost feelings. Particularly on television, it’s almost impossible to find another interesting crime solver who isn’t driven by childhood wounds or crippling psychological flaws or fixations. People are always trying to humanise Dracula; they too often try to do the same to Sherlock Holmes. Elementary is a case in point: It’s a New Age variation on the persona, positing a modern-day Holmes who is a recovering drug addict with daddy issues. His Watson is a doctor, played by Lucy Liu, who was hired by his father to serve as Holmes’s companion-watchdog. House, the old show that starred Hugh Laurie as a doctor, was also a reworking of Sherlock Holmes — and possibly a little of Joseph Bell, a surgeon who was Conan Doyle’s real-life model. The show revelled in House’s deductive diagnoses but couldn’t leave the hero’s cool superiority alone. By series end, he was cracking up more than he was cracking cases. The flawed detective is so common that it’s become a television cliché.
Sherlock, set in contemporary London, ingeniously converts 19th-century technology to today’s world of smartphones, blogs, surveillance cameras and GPS, without adopting the attendant self-absorption and psychobabble. This Sherlock could be turned into a textbook psychiatric case, but the show allows him to be merely eccentric, bracingly tactless and haughtily free of introspection, though he does crave cocaine when bored and sometimes turns morose if he can’t figure out a clue. When people question his sangfroid, calling him a psychopath, Holmes corrects them by cheerfully describing himself as a “high-functioning sociopath”.
In Season 3, Sherlock’s emotional detachment is put to the highest test: He reunites with Watson after a two-year absence, and then is best man at Watson’s wedding. Sherlock expresses genuine friendship and even warmth, but the show resists turning him into a basket case or, worse, a normal human being. The wedding episode is a gripping and even hilarious tour de force: Sherlock solves two crimes while delivering a long, serpentine wedding toast. Episodes echo, rather than follow, plots from the original stories. The writers take fanciful liberties with Conan Doyle’s work, mixing together strands from different stories and often concocting whole new tangents. Sherlock is inventive and humorously far-fetched, but always in the spirit of the original work.