Sherlock: Series 1 (review)

Sherlock: Series 1 (review)

Benedict Cumberbatch Martin Freeman Sherlock

Game On

The second series of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s brilliant, brilliant Sherlock is about to start tomorrow, and so my hand is forced: I must finally write about the first series. The reason I’ve put it off isn’t simple procrastination. The reason I’ve put it off is because every time I contemplate the notion of sitting down and writing about it, I am overcome with a dread that anything I write will reduce it to something smaller and boringer and less than the utterly fantastic thing that it is.

I love these three movie-length episodes to a degree that’s sort of terrifying. I never tire of rewatching them. Every time I’ve imagined that this was the moment in which I would finally write about them, I used that as an excuse to watch them again, so it’s been like four or five go-rounds at least so far. The cleverness of the writing, the charm of Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson, the wit of the visuals, the sheer all-encompassing magnificence of it — it all leads me to conclude that this is the third most perfect TV series ever (after Life on Mars and Slings and Arrows). Everything about it is perfect. Even the score is amazing.

Here’s (partly) why it’s so great. We tend to forget that when Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes in 1887, the world’s first consulting detective was a wholly modern man on the cutting edge, often beyond. He used technology with gusto; he advocated methods of forensics and criminal psychology that wouldn’t come to fruition in the real world until a century later. But now we live in a world of FBI profilers such as Fox Mulder and Clarice Starling, and we live in a world in which sending telegrams seems ridiculously old-fashioned. Conan Doyle’s Holmes, no matter his allure, feels like something of a relic to us today. His quaintness is probably a big part of his appeal. But quaint he is.

Moffat and Gatiss kicked that quaint in the ass, and reminded us how just plain fresh and progressive and exciting Holmes is — surely this is how Holmes felt to Victorian readers, too. How Moffat and Gatiss updated Holmes is even funny, and yet not in the least bit campy, as it so easily could have been (especially considering the goofy black hole into which Moffat is pushing his Doctor Who). In a way, it’s hardly even an update. I mean, of course Holmes loves texting: it’s today’s equivalent of telegrams, down to how we abbreviate to save characters. Of course a blog is how Watson would tell the tales of his adventures with Holmes; of course a Web site is how Holmes would monograph his theories of crime detection. And taxis now have internal combustion engines instead of horses, but they’re still a good way to get around London (especially now that the congestion charge has reduced traffic). It’s all funny because it’s not funny, because it shows off how little the world has changed, in some ways: we still want to communicate quickly, to move around quickly; the city is still full of bustling mystery, still full of diverse people doing strange and dangerous things. The things that feel secretive and enigmatic — diplomacy; banking; even the anonymity of city life — still feel that way, and whodunits can be effectively created around them.

But there’s authentic humor bubbling up from Moffat’s and Gatiss’s awareness of the tropes of Sherlock Holmes, and their awareness of our awareness. They know we know all the bits (“Come at once if convenient, if not convenient come all the same”) and all the clichés. A 21st-century Holmes may be unable to maintain a smoking habit in health-conscious London, so he slaps on some replacement nicotine to solve a “three-patch problem.” So clever, the suspense inherent in not telling us, at first, which character Gatiss himself is portraying in the first episode, “A Study in Pink”: the writers know we’re guessing that he must be either Moriarty or Mycroft… and the fact that one actor speaking only a few sinister lines might be either Holmes’s archnemesis or his own smarter, well-connected, and hugely useful brother underscores the intrigue of Holmes’s world, and why we love it so very much.

And yet the very real appeal of Holmes is regularly undercut, too. Holmes himself knows he is a “high-functioning sociopath” — whacking him with that frankly terrifying 21st-century label while also making him such a wonderfully rude bastard leaves us feeling more ambivalent about Holmes than we might otherwise. If only Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Creation) — who might be the most perfect Holmes ever — didn’t then add another layer of magnetism, complicating the matter all the more. His Holmes is cold, unfeeling, bad-mannered, and downright meanspirited (as when he uses the appeal he clearly knows he has to manipulate the hapless lovestruck coroner in episode 2, “The Blind Banker”) and yet he couldn’t be more attractive. He’s Spock, he’s Data, he’s the romantic nut that’s impossible to crack, and impossible to resist trying to crack, in one’s fantasy imagination.

Martin Freeman’s (What’s Your Number?, Swinging with the Finkels) Watson is more captivating — and more complicated — than any Watson has even been before… even if his Watson has just returned from the same damn war in the same damn country his Victorian predecessor did. He’s no more a hero, in the traditional sense, than Holmes is, than Holmes flat out says he isn’t — “Heroes don’t exist, and if they did, I wouldn’t be one of them.” Holmes may be a sociopath, but Watson isn’t, and he misses the adrenaline rush of war, and admits as much.

Then there’s The Question: What, precisely, is the nature of Holmes and Watson’s relationship? Fans of Conan Doyle have debated this since forever, and Watson’s canonical marriage aside, Holmes’s disdain for women has lead to some obvious assumptions. Moffat and Gatiss attack it head on, and have everyone Holmes and Watson encounter express perfect comfort with the notion that they’re a couple. Even if they aren’t. No. 126,924 on the list of things that are perfect.

Well, okay, not everything is perfect. The first story, “A Study in Pink”? I totally sussed the answer to the big mystery — who hides in a crowd, etc — before Sherlock did. In fact, I was sure he’d guessed it at the same time I did, and then was shocked to see that he hadn’t. Is the central puzzle of at least the first episode too easy? Even if it is, this hardly detracts from Sherlock’s perfection, because it’s all too easy to let that slide in light of everything else that works so well.

In fact, perhaps the only infuriating thing about Series 1 is the cliffhanger ending. But now that’s about to be resolved, or at least the teasing will be continued, with Series 2. Hoorah!

(next: “A Scandal in Belgravia”)


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  • bronxbee 2 days ago
    i am a little confused:  was there a pilot episode *before* series one, which has never been broadcast on US television?  is it available on dvd?
  • was there a pilot episode *before* series one, which has never been broadcast on US television


  • Yes, there was and it’s included on the DVD Set of series one.
  • Re: Season 2 in America–I was checking the PBS website yesterday because I wanted to see if they had the schedule up for Masterpiece mystery.  I wanted to know when Endeavour and Inspector Lewis would be on.

    They didn’t have the schedule for that yet but what I did notice–is that the PBS website says they’ll be showing Sherlock on January 15th, 22nd, and 29th.

    Attached files

  • If that’s true, bravo to PBS for recognizing the realities of 21st century entertainment: it knows no national boundaries, if it’s something people are panting after.
  • What I’m seeing on those dates is “A Study in Pink”, “the Blind Banker” and “The Great Game”. Series 1, in other words.
  • Oh I see.  On the website schedule, it just syas Sherlock so I assumed it was series 2.  However, when you download the PDF schedule, it says Encore which tells you it’s series one.  If they’d included the word encore in both places, I would have known.

  • People might get a kick out of this: http://fozmeadows.files.wordpr…

    Attached files

  • It has words on it; it’s not just a picture.
  • Prankster36 5 days ago
    I remain stumped by your obsession with Life on Mars, Maryann. I mean, yeah, it’s a fun show, but I can think of a dozen better ones just from within the last decade. Even if we’re using the definition “perfect” to indicate a show that maintained a consistent level of quality throughout it’s run, thereby eliminating, for instance, The Simpsons or Monty Python or Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I still don’t think Life on Mars would count in the top ten.
  • gguest 5 days ago
    ok you waste time thinking about tree people while me and lescarr try to work out who moriarty is and we’ll be way ahead of you by next Sunday with the theories

    seriously I would say skip Dr Who, it is a 3 stars out of 5 kind of thing but Sherlock is a 5 stars

  • ok you waste time thinking about tree people

    You may be shocked to learn this, but I am capable to doing more than one thing at once.

  • lol yes well I am male so the multi-tasking concept is alien to me
  • gguest 5 days ago
    I kept thinking – “This is sooo much better than Inception” lol and I really liked inception
  • gguest 5 days ago
    It was bloody good though – how many times have you gone to a film and the plot has defeated you about halfway through?

    In this – it was perfectly plotted, it kept bringing you back to the major themes, and then tied them  up as we knew they would

    the only stretch is that holmes’s brain seems to be gooole’s database – he just knows that there is only one plane with that seat arrangement, and things like that

    (Edited by a moderator)

  • Um, please don’t post spoilers for Series 2 in the Series 1 thread! I’ll post some blogging on “A Scandal in Belgravia” tomorrow, and you’ll be welcome to talk about it there.
  • So does the written Sherlock, it’s an ingrained part of the character.
  • I’ve just watched A Scandal in Belgravia – my word Moffat wasn’t kidding when he said they had made three feature films. Can I nominate John Watson’s line “Mycroft could just phone me if he didn’t have this bloody stupid power complex” as the set up for the best sight gag of all time?
  • I’ll post some Sherlock blogging, though probably not till tomorrw. Gotta finish up Xmas Who first. :->
  • lol yeah battersea apparentnly is in southwark too
  • gguest 5 days ago
    We just had the new series episode on BBC in the UK – it was fantastic

    if you install “modify headers” to your firefox it might be on iPlayer

    they even made a blog for it which appears in the episode…

    It was a bit like what a feature-length Dr Who might look like – really twisty plot and even love interest

  • Spooky – the hit counter is stuck on 1895!
  • this twitter link is quite good too!/ClemyW/s…

  • NorthernStar 5 days ago
    Part of what makes The Study in Pink so immediately addictive and glorious is that it remembers and brings to life something that many adaptations and even a surprisingly large number of Holmesian academics fail to grasp: that the stories are about Watson, Conan Doyle makes this clear from his first line, and his life with Holmes. He is the lens into that world and knowing him helps us to know Holmes.

    Watson in Sherlock is a wonderfully realised person and his arrival into Baker Street has never been so faithfully created. Even the astonishingly faithful Russian series stumbled there.

    And to see Sherlock as the throughly modern man he always was is just beautiful.

  • You’ve hit upon why I prfer the pilot to the episode 1 that aired, Maryann.  In the pilot, Sherlock figures out the killer’s profession himself instead of the killer having to come to him so it makes Sherlock look smarter.  The pilot has something in common with episode 2 and 3 which I like and that I don’t like in episode 1.  In episode 1, when Sherlock examines the corpse, you see all these words come up onscreen, telling you what Sherlock’s thinking about.  I prefer not to know so that I can be as mazed as Watson and Lestrade when Sherlock reveals all.
  • Arthur Dent as Watson.  Perfect.
  • Dr. Rocketscience 6 days ago

    I never tire of rewatching them.

    Even episode 2? Cause episode 2 is kinda rubbish.

    Also, I hate hate hate the ending.

  • madderrose74 6 days ago
    Cumberbatch’s Holmes is very much a modern take on Jeremy Brett’s portrayal in the Granada series of the 1980’s; to me, the best Holmes is a right bastard, a man with enormous insight and no empathy. Where this version really stands out, IMHO, is in the portrayal of Watson. Martin Freeman just nails it– he’s a soldier living in a civilian world, and the sense of frustration at those limitations is palpable. He’d do anything to get out, including moving in with a madman.
  • Killara29 6 days ago
    I guessed the answer to the first one but that’s only because another tv show (Luthor)  had the exact same storyline about a week earlier.  Thought the 2nd one was weakest but thought it was funny because he kept beating the shit out of everyone in it, while Watson the soldier, kept just missing out on the action!

    Did you catch the Peter Davidson cameo in the 3rd one?

    I felt that Moffat was over stretched by this and Dr Who, and also, that he put a lot of his genius (and he is a genius) and creativity into Sherlock, rather than Who these last years.  I am much more excited about Sherlock than Who.  Don’t you think BC would have made a wonderful Dr?  Especially with that coat!  I mean Sherlock, like the Dr, has all the answers or enough faith in his own ability to work them out.  I’d love to see the 2 of them team up = clash of the super egos!

  • Ohiopokey 6 days ago
    personally did not like Sherlock’s manic persona.  Wasn’t he on the short list for the 11th Doctor?  Seems more like he’s playing a precocious Time Lord to me.  and I felt like Watson was left in the dust.  If I were Watson, the novelty would have worn off by now and I’d be updating my resume.  Nontheless, I will of course be watching it.
  • Maryann, I could not agree with you more! I had to laugh when I read your review, as it mirrors my feeling so exactly – right down to your reference to Spock:-)).

    I, too never tire of watching and rewatching the first Series and think it is as near perfection as possible

    Sadly, living in the US, I have to wait until May for Series 2

  • The acclaim for this show is completely lost on me. The episodes I saw were *terrible*–half the runtime is watching people play with their iPhones, and the outrageously dated “stylistic flourishes”, ie whenever Sherlock examines a corpse and the camera swooshes and zip pans into his face as, again, he plays with his iPhone, are hilariously bad. And the stories are just the typically over-convoluted junk you get in all mystery crime dramas these days. :/
  • RogerBW 6 days ago
    It’s a very good piece of Sherlock Holmes fanfiction, which is just what one would expect given Moffett’s record on NuWho. But when it’s Sherlock Holmes, to which everything that can be done already has been done, I find that I don’t mind as much.

    Falls apart a bit in the second episode where he gives in to the ever-present (at least post-Rathbone) temptation to make Watson into the comic relief. But still much more fun than I expected it to be.

    I wonder whether they’re trying to make Moriarty into a version of The Joker; making him personally annoying as well as morally opposed to Holmes rather removes any possibility of subtlety from the relationship.

  • The second episode is pretty awful, frankly, and people seem to gloss over it because it’s surrounded by the terrific first and third entries. But it’s much closer to the kind of hacky crap you’d expect from a modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes (are you listening, Guy Ritchie?) and the racism is outright painful. In a show that managed to cleverly modernize everything else about Holmes, how did we get stuck with scheming, inscrutable Orientals (who work in a fucking CIRCUS no less?) I’m honestly quite alarmed by the fact that this season’s finale is going to be written by “The Blind Banker”‘s author, Steven Thompson. He’s the show’s weak link so far.
  • Ohiopokey 6 days ago
    when and where can we see it in America?
  • It’s also on Netflix streaming.
  • Does Netflix have “A Scandal in Belgravia” streaming yet, or do Americans have to wait?
  • ITunes will have it before any other source, and like Maryann says, probably May. I’m cheap enough to wait the extra three months for Netflix to get it.
  • Series 2 will air on PBS in May. It’s almost impossible that it will stream on Netflix before it is available on Region 1 DVD (which I’m guessing won’t be till summer, at the earliest). If you have a region-free player, get the Region 2 DVD, which releases on Jan 23.
  • i will be doing that:  unless prohibitively expensive, of course.
  • Sadly, my “region-free” machine plays everything but PAL format.
  • it’s been on PBS a few times…

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About masterkan

Louis Sheehan
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