Sherlock

Series I finale aired Sunday, November 7, on PBS.

Sherlock Holmes would be nothing without John Watson. It’s easy to forget that, what with all the attention-grabbing deductive shenanigans and outrageous displays of arrogance, but stalwart Watson is not only the frame by which the stories are told (the conceit of Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction is that Watson is recounting his friend’s adventures); he also, more important, is practically the only story element that humanizes the iconic detective. Without Watson, Holmes would be unbearable and incomprehensible; even with Watson at his side, he’s a pill.

So Watson is key. He can’t just be a dumb loyal dog trotting after his master—that gets old fast—but there still has to be a reason that he puts up Holmes’s abuse. Holmes only has to make sense in relation to Watson, but Watson, as our portal into the story, has to make sense in himself.

What I love most about Sherlock, the BBC’s clever modern-day take on the detective (recently broadcast in the United States on PBS), is that it seems to understand that: the odd, prickly relationship between Holmes and Watson is central to the show and vividly dramatized. Watson might not be able to keep up with Holmes’s mental gymnastics, but he’s not a passive sounding board. He talks back, and he learns, and in his own way, he’s just as alienated from society as the great detective—an interesting, provocative take of the familiar Holmes-Watson dynamic. The show has its weaknesses in other areas, but with this pair at its center, it can’t help but be a smashing success.

Benedict Cumberbatch (whose name delights Sean and me—surely that handle is the quintessence of Britishness!) plays the contemporary Sherlock Holmes as a coolly intelligent near-sociopath, indifferent to the human repercussions of the crimes he investigates, interested only in solving the high-stakes puzzles and slaking his massive ego. That attitude hasn’t endeared him to the London police—though DI Lestrade (Rupert Graves) tolerates him, recognizing their need for his genius—but it does draw John Watson (Martin Freeman), an injured war vet adrift back at home and perversely bored by his new civilian life. (This Watson, like the original, served in Afghanistan—a detail that, sadly, didn’t need to be updated.) In Holmes, he finds both the flatmate he was looking for and the strange but stimulating friendship he didn’t know he needed.

Cumberbatch and Freeman have a marvelous rapport together. Cumberbatch doesn’t push to make Holmes likable: The man is cold and rude and tends to become very impatient with any display of emotion, but as he gradually develops some respect for and attachment to his new flatmate, he unbends just the slightest at odd moments. Freeman’s Watson is more huggable (Freeman is one of the most endearing Everyman-type actors around), but he’s no less tetchy, with a deeply buried reservoir of directionless anger. He snaps back when Holmes carelessly throws insults his way, and he can’t help letting a hint of smugness sneak across his face on those rare occasions when the master gets something wrong. The resulting interplay is very funny—not easy, clichéd old-married-couple bickering (though that gag is tossed around) but something subtler and more character-specific. Writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss provide the actors with cracklingly good dialogue, and they deliver it with keen energy and droll comedic—and dramatic—timing.

The writing of the mysteries isn’t always so astute, though the development of Holmes’s genius for detection is brilliant. The original Holmes often relied on knowledge of obscure trivia, but in one of their strongest insights, Moffat and Gatiss suggest that possessing an encyclopedic mind isn’t necessarily an advantage anymore—not when anyone can obtain some arcane detail with a second or two with Google. (Their Holmes is himself practically glued to his smartphone, rapidly scanning and searching for the key fact he knows is there.) No, the modern Holmes’s true gift is his deductive reasoning: his ability to make connections, to determine what he should look for, to see what is missing. Holmes always has been known for that sort of thing, of course, but Sherlock makes a point of privileging such analysis over raw knowledge—and doing so with smart, incisive acuity.

If only Holmes’s dazzling logical acrobatics always led to dazzling solutions, but alas, those tend to be a letdown here. One episode involves a serial killer with a lackluster motive, a hackneyed modus operandi, and a final faceoff that plays like a weirdly straight-faced rendering of the Sicilian’s last battle of wits in The Princess Bride (“Inconceivable!”). Another episode indulges in various uncomfortable clichés of the Mysterious Orient, complete with evil dragon lady—which, stylistically, is quite in keeping with Doyle’s storytelling but which doesn’t modernize well.

The exception, fittingly enough, is the inevitable Moriarty tale. Actor Andrew Scott’s portrayal of Holmes’s arch-nemesis is deeply unsettling—especially at the end of an episode marked by crimes of genuine menace, in which kidnapped hostages are forced to relay the mastermind’s taunting messages. I tend to think of Moriarty as a smooth, gentlemanly villain who would never dirty his own hands, but the Moriarty in Sherlock is shrewd but extremely volatile, with a nasty, pitch-black sense of humor and an underlying rage that’s hard to pin down. I’m not entirely sure I understand where Moffat and Gatiss are going with their take on the character, but I’m eager to find out. The cliffhanger at the end of the tantalizing short three-episode series is a nail-biter, and their Moriarty makes a fascinating foil for their Holmes.

But most of all, I’m eager to see more of Cumberbatch and Freeman’s bracingly contemporary take on the classic Holmes/Watson partnership. I only wish that modern-day Watson’s blog (another clever update of the primary text) actually existed so that I wouldn’t have to wait.