BBC Video // 2010 // 270 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // December 13th, 2010
I'm not a psychopath. I'm a high-functioning sociopath.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories have appeared countless times on screen in wildly varying degrees of quality throughout cinematic history. With the massive scale Guy Ritchie installment barely cold, it might seem a little excessive to have another so soon. It doesn't matter, though, if it's good, and BBC's Sherlock is very good. While a mere three 90-minute episodes, developers Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss (both Doctor Who writers) knock each one clean out of the ballpark.
A Study in Pink: A rash of similarly executed suicides have the police stumped. They try to deny a connection, but something is clearly sinister about this situation. When the police have no more leads, there's only one man they can turn to: consulting detective and master of deduction, Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch, The Other Boleyn Girl). With uncanny powers of observation and a fearless sense of adventure, Holmes takes off with his loyal assistant, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman, Nightwatching), to figure out why these people are dying. The key rests with the ones able to travel the London streets without being seen.
The Blind Banker: Holmes is hired by an old classmate to investigate a bank break-in where nothing got stolen. He finds a symbol painted on the wall of the office of one of their reps. When, later that night, the person who used the office is found dead, Holmes and Watson get on the case. Deciphering the mystery leads Holmes into a smuggling ring led by a man known by a single initial: M.
The Great Game: Holmes is being taunted by an unseen villain, who straps explosives to victims and makes them read missives to the detective over the phone detailing a crime he must solve in a specified period of time. If the clock winds down...boom. This leads Holmes through a gauntlet of increasingly difficult challenges; the more he solves, the closer he comes to goading this psycho into revealing himself.
I was a little afraid that a modern day Sherlock Holmes would be a giant anachronism, but it's amazing how neatly Doyle's work fits today. Only one of the three episodes is directly based on his work, but the show keeps the pulpy spirit of the original stories intact while sacrificing surprisingly little in the transfer to current time. The stories focus on the fun of the mystery and never feel old or stodgy. While there are some connections between episodes, they are mostly stand-alone affairs. It works really well and flows very nicely due to the very smartly written characters and stories.
The Holmes character is certainly the most important and he is handled very well, both in the writing and the performance. Benedict Cumberbatch (the greatest Holmes actor name since Basil Rathbone) is excellent as the detective, first and foremost, but the way he is transferred into modern society really sells the story. His personality is almost entirely traditional, and the few quirks he has make perfect sense in a modern context. He doesn't want to be bothered with speaking to people, so he text messages everybody. Instead of keeping journals, he writes a blog. He takes advantage of all the technology available to him, more than the original Holmes could have dreamed, although the magnifying glass does come out from time to time. He's obsessive, callous, and socially maladjusted; few encountering him in passing would mistake Holmes for anything but a jerk. Those who know him see his loyalty and goodness, even if he refuses to compliment you on your hair.
They never get around to Holmes's sensitive side, but they do focus heavily on his relationship with Dr. Watson. As opposed to many popular incarnations of the character, this Watson is a fully capable and entirely reliable cohort. He may not understand where Holmes comes up with the answers he finds, but he's there in a pinch, no matter what. Martin Freeman does great in the role. He's affable, but constantly worried, both about money and their own well-being. He's a steadying force that allows Holmes to focus on the important things in life, like foiling Moriarty's dastardly plans. The arch-nemesis of Sherlock Holmes gets little screen time, but he should remain in the shadows. Based on the cliffhanger at the end of the third episode, we'll be seeing much more from him.
The series doesn't take a lot of stylistic risks and, in the end, it looks and feels a lot like the new Doctor Who, ironic given how much the good doctor is inspired by the detective. It may not look terribly original, but they got it right. The presentation is a somewhat stagy, but it lends a welcome intimacy to the series that a lot of mystery and adventure shows don't have. The one thing they really score with is their use of intertitles. Holmes makes heavy use of text messaging and GPS; instead of the standard cutaway to a shot of hands manipulating a cell phone, the scene can move on unedited. We get all the information we need and the scene seems more real; I really hope this technique catches on. My single complaint about the style comes when Holmes reveals his deductions. It's my problem with modern procedurals, but when he starts explaining his reasoning, the show suddenly becomes CSI with it's hyper-zooms and computer graphics. I guess it's the style, but unlike the intertitles, I find it completely obtrusive. That's small potatoes compared to the fun to be had in this show, though.
We received a screener for review for Sherlock: Season One, so the technical specs may change, but what stands is pretty good Blu-ray presentation. The first disc contains the first two episodes, with a commentary on A Study in Pink, and the second disc contains the third episode, along with the extra features. The picture looks great, with nicely saturated colors and a clear, detailed transfer. The sound is fairly strong, though in regular Dolby 5.1, it could be better and would, I hope, improve in the final release.
There aren't a lot of supplements, but what's here is very good. The commentaries on A Study in Pink and The Great Game, with various members of the cast and crew, are both affable and informative, with the participants all rightly proud of the work they've done. A making-of featurette, Unlocking Sherlock, runs about thirty minutes and takes us through a detailed look at all aspects of the production. Most interestingly, we have the original unaired pilot episode of the show. It's also called A Study in Pink, but is an hour long with a considerably altered story and a very different feel. By the time it was to air, the show had become much larger and more detailed than they had originally intended and started over, almost from scratch. The basic gist is the same, but there are enough important differences to almost make it seem like another episode entirely.
If you've ever been a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle's brilliant detective, this series is a more than worthy incarnation of the characters. Aside from the one little thing that bothers me about the style, I can say little negative about the show. BBC has already announced the renewal of Holmes and the good Doctor Watson for a second season, and I can't wait.
It's obvious. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 270 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Unaired Pilot
* Sherlock Holmes's blog
* John Watson's blog