A modern classic, modernized

Sherlock Holmes in a strange and brilliant take

Benedict Cumberbatch (left) plays Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman his sidekick, Watson, in the new PBS series “Sherlock.’’ Benedict Cumberbatch (left) plays Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman his sidekick, Watson, in the new PBS series “Sherlock.’’ (Colin Hutton)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / October 22, 2010

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So what, you might be thinking. Another Sherlock Holmezzzz. And that would be a fair so what, given the fact that we’ve been swimming in Sherlocks since he first appeared in the 1880s. And I’m not just talking about adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes; I’m talking about Sherlock knockoffs on TV’s countless forensic dramas, including the “CSI’’ shows, “The Mentalist,’’ and “Bones,’’ not to mention the most Sherlockian of them all, medical detective Dr. Gregory House, who even has his own Watson — Wilson. House is definitely a Holmes.

But PBS’s “Sherlock’’ is not just another Sherlock Holmes. The new three-part series, which premieres on Sunday at 9 on Channel 2, is a strange, fascinating, and sometimes brilliant contemporary take on the father of forensic crime-solving. This texting, laptopping Sherlock is part Conan Doyle, part House, part petulant rock star, and part Sheldon from “The Big Bang Theory’’ as he makes social blunders with shades of Asperger’s. Instead of a 7 percent solution of cocaine, he’s hooked on nicotine patches, and he isn’t averse to solving daytime-TV mysteries and having a website to attract business. But underneath the present-day tweaks by series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the new Sherlock is remarkably true to the spirit of the original, an arrogant, antisocial man fixated on tiny details and deductive reasoning.

The concept may sound gimmicky, I know, but it unfolds quite naturally, not least of all thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch’s focused, hyperactive lead performance. It makes perfect sense that a present-day Sherlock would be Internet savvy, that he would distrust landline phones, that he would arrogantly send a text blast reading “WRONG’’ to a gathering of reporters during a Scotland Yard press conference. He is a geek god, in a way, even while he crawls around London in a Victorian cape and an absurd dandy’s haircut like a pale, fringe creature. Across the century, he rhymes perfectly with Conan Doyle’s brainy bohemian.

Dr. John Watson, too, has been updated yet left essentially true to the original. He’s Holmes’s assistant, Baker Street flatmate, and chronicler, and his Holmes stories are written for a blog. (The first entry, Sunday’s “A Study in Pink,’’ is a take on Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet.’’) He is a military doctor who served in Afghanistan, as did the original Watson, and his therapist is encouraging him to blog as a way to address his post-traumatic stress disorder. Martin Freeman, who was the deadpanning Tim in the original “The Office,’’ is excellent and earthy in the role. While Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is something of a drama queen lost in his own thinking, Freeman’s downbeat Watson accepts Sherlock’s quirks because he is in awe of his peculiar brilliance. Also, beneath his composed appearance, Watson knows he is drawn to Holmes because he is a danger junkie just like Holmes.

Watson is straight, and Sherlock is asexual, it seems; but the writers frequently make fun by having people mistake Watson and Holmes for lovers — something “House’’ has also done. In the second episode, next Sunday, Holmes meets one of Watson’s dates and behaves like a jealous competitor. But Holmes is not self-aware, emotionally speaking, even while he knows he’s a “high-functioning sociopath,’’ as he proudly puts it. He is in love with the notion of having an “archenemy’’ — Moriarty, whom we meet in the third episode — but he doesn’t examine why. Nor does he analyze his rivalry with his brother, Mycroft (Gatiss). His thoughts speed by too quickly.

The three episodes are a mixed bag in terms of the crime plots. (A new trilogy is in the works, by the way.) Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter; the show is all about Sherlock and Watson, circa 2010.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at


Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman

On: WGBH, Channel 2

Time: Sunday night, 9-10:30