Thursday, February 16, 2012

Elementary: BBC's Sherlock – Season Two

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson

One of the great joys of writing for this website is discovering hidden treasures that you can share with the reader. Sometimes you can also warn folks, too, about the dreck that litters the popular culture landscape. But for me the biggest pleasure I get is when one of my colleagues unearths something, writes about it and turns me on to it. That is exactly what Mark Clamen did nearly two years ago when he reviewed the first season of the new BBC TV version of Sherlock Holmes, called simply Sherlock. Up until Mark reviewed it I didn't know it existed. And until that moment I'd also never heard of Benedict Cumberbatch (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; National Theatre’s Frankenstein) who was cast as Sherlock Holmes.

Because of his review (he'd seen it in advance of its Canadian premiere), I was able to keep my eye out for it when the first season was finally broadcast on the Canadian cable channel, Showcase (it played on PBS in several markets, but not on my Buffalo-based PBS station for some reason). I won't rehash Mark's review, but suffice it to say that adapters – Mark Gatiss (who also plays Mycroft Holmes on the show) and Steven Moffat (creator of another fascinating but finally unsuccessful updating with his version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, called Jekyll) – have brilliantly updated to our current era these stories based on Arthur Conan Doyle's. Some of the updating is inspired with twisty variations to the original stories. Some of the updating is incredibly simple, but very effective. For example, Dr. John Watson (a really good Martin Freeman) is a veteran of a war in Afghanistan, just as the Dr. Watson was in Doyle's original stories. Some things never change.

"I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath."

But it is Holmes, as played by Cumberbatch, who makes this so compelling. At one point last season, in the episode “A Study in Pink” (based on Doyle's novel A Study in Scarlet), Holmes said, “I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.” And that is exactly how Cumberbatch plays him. Very generally, a psychopath is someone who is callous, very manipulative and calculating, but also incredibly charming. They think nothing of hurting anybody. They are aware they are doing something wrong, but don't care. A sociopath is more likely to act out spontaneously in inappropriate ways without thinking of the consequences. They will also manipulate, but they tend to be much more careful around a select few people they like. They also tend to lack charm. Holmes has always been played as somewhat aloof and antisocial, but never as clearly sociopathic as he is here.

In Season Two (on BBC Canada, not Showcase), this interpretation of Sherlock Holmes becomes stronger and stronger. Each season is only three two-hour episodes (at least in Canada when you include commercials; in the UK, the shows were only 90 minutes because the BBC in the UK does not run commercials). Of the two second-season episodes that have run in Canada (the third airs tonight at 8PM EST on BBC Canada), the first, “A Scandal in Belgravia” (based on Doyle’s story “A Scandal in Bohemia”) is the best. Although never named, it is suggested that Queen Elizabeth II hired Sherlock Holmes, or rather “commanded” he come to the palace. (Remember my mention above of a sociopath acting out spontaneously? Well, when he's forced to come to Buckingham Palace, he refuses to dress and arrives wrapped in his bed sheets.) Just prior to being brought to the Palace, we see him bored out of his skull because he desperately needs a case to occupy his hummingbird-fast mind. Watching him dismiss potential client after client, in a fine rapidly edited sequence, because he finds their cases frivolous is hilarious. But those rejected cases come back, in a fascinating way, into the one he finally does take on, albeit briefly. Once he finds his interest piqued in the case – there are supposedly compromising photographs of a British princess (the naughty hints, never made explicit, is that it's perhaps, maybe, supposed-to-be Kate Middleton) – he quickly determines that his prime suspect is Irene Adler (wonderfully played by Lara Pulver), a dominatrix who took the pictures. That is just the starting point though for an episode filled with political intriguing and machinations. (Incidentally, Irene Adler is the same character Rachel McAdams played in the two Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films).

Lara Pulver as Irene Adler
There's one other thing about Irene Adler (which is true of the original story and in the Downey Holmes): Holmes is instantly smitten with her. And you can see why, even if Holmes is pretty incompetent in the ways of men and women. She is appealingly strong, forthright in her sexuality, her mind is as quick as his, and she too is a sociopath. (She has more charm than Holmes, but, like him, there are few people she likes with Holmes being one of the few). There are so many moments in this very dense, much layered episode that I could go on and on about, but just a couple more. The plan that the government has come up with that Adler (and Holmes' arch nemesis, James Moriarty) uncover is creepy, but plausibly effective. The show-runners even get little things right. For example, Adler steals Holmes' cell and replaces his ringtone with a woman sighing in orgasm (like so much else, something funny pays off in a very touching way at the episode's end). I don't want to spoil anybody's fun, so I'll stop there. It's just so wonderfully good. By the way, if you PVR it when BBC Canada starts repeats make sure you let your recording go five minutes past the top of the last hour. I didn't and missed the last minute. A friend had to tell me the completely satisfying final seconds.

The second episode, “The Hounds of the Baskerville,” is a little bit more of a ... erm ... shaggy dog story that finally rights itself in the last half hour. There are terrific ideas at play here, but it lacks focus. In the original novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles, the Baskervilles are a moneyed family on the moor who are supposedly cursed and doomed to, one by one, be slaughtered by a devil dog on the same moor. In this modern retelling, Baskerville is a military base doing chemical weapons research. A lot of their research requires experimentation on animals, including dogs. A rich man (Russell Tovey, George the werewolf in the British Being Human), who lives near the base, hires Holmes and Watson to help him track and destroy a giant hound that he believes, many years before, killed his father while he watched. It is suggested that the dog escaped from Baskerville, but all is not what it seems. The episode lacks the flair and complexity of the first episode, but it does have a wonderful moment when Holmes' “perfect” psyche starts to come unravelled. And watch for the sequence where Holmes goes to his “mind palace.” Again, there are many humorous touches, such as Watson misinterpreting an odd Morse code message, but the sombreness generally takes precedence.

Andrew Scott as Moriarty
Tonight's finale, based on Doyle's “The Final Problem,” is called “The Reichenbach Fall.” Moriarty figures prominently (unnervingly played by Andrew Scott; now he’s a psychopath). Anybody who knows their Sherlock Holmes knows what this will be about (but considering the writers, they will likely provide some sort of “tricksy” curveball).

It is said that, after Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is the character that has been featured in the most movie and TV shows. Yet, this one is so inspired, so unique in its interpretation of the stories, so wonderfully acted that it feels like we are being introduced to the character for the very first time. I was most happy to hear that, after Freeman finishes shooting The Hobbit films (he plays Bilbo Baggins), they have agreed to do a third season. One word of warning: You might want to turn your subtitles on while you watch, especially during the scenes where Holmes dissects the clues visible on a person in front of him. He talks so fast – and with such elaborate language – that the only way to appreciate or understand what he is saying is by using the subtitles.

David Churchill is a critic and author of the novel The Empire of Death. You can read an excerpt here. Or go to for more information. And yes, he’s begun the long and arduous task of writing his second novel.


  1. A very interesting review..

    Have you tried the Russian adaptation with Vasily Livanov as Sherlock Holmes..

  2. David, good stuff, as always...Sherlock DID play on PBS Buffalo (I made airchecks) for series 1. Series 2 begins this summer, but why take a chance? So I did the BBCCanada airchecks now instead of later.

    A minor fact checking point.