Tuesday, Oct. 19, 2010

21st Century Sherlock

By David Luhrssen
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Dr. John Watson awakens in a cold sweat of post-traumatic nightmare, a whirly-blur of bad memories from his service in Afghanistan. Like his literary forebear, the 21st century Watson (Martin Freeman) of the new “Masterpiece Mystery!” series “Sherlock” fought in the mountainous country and returned home with nothing much to do. His life changes after encountering a most unusual figure, a “consulting detective” called Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Piloted by the team behind “Dr. Who,” Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the new “Sherlock” is a witty update of Arthur Conan Doyle and a far better tribute than last year’s more flash than substance film by Madonna’s ex-husband. The three episodes, “A Study in Pink,” “The Blind Banker” and “The Great Game,” intelligently and knowingly shift Holmes and Watson from cobblestone Victorian London to the glass and steel city of nowadays. “Sherlock” also investigates the psychology of the brilliant Holmes and his sidekick. Watson is still looking for a war to fight. And Holmes? “The weirder the crime, the more he gets off on it,” says a detective disparagingly. “He’s a psychopath.”

Nowadays, even in England, eccentricity has to be medicalized and categorized according to the physician’s registry. Holmes begs to differ with the amateur diagnosis, albeit he might not have any defined social purpose for his crime solving and he loves mocking the police. During Inspector Lestrade’s press conference in “A Study in Pink,” every mobile phone in the room rings at once and a single texted word instantly appears after each of Lestrade’s pronouncements: WRONG. Lestrade is a well-meaning man a foot or two out of his depth. Holmes is a trickster tweaking authority but ultimately upholding it against the dangerous currents of chaos.

The dour new Watson is far from the jovial, clubbable portrayal by Nigel Bruce in the 1930s-‘40s classics. The depiction of Holmes is closer to familiarity. He is wired (psychologically as well as technologically) and a bit of a dandy; in his long coat and muffler, he resembles Dr. Who as he dashes around London, his mind flashing with incredible speed and total recall. When Watson returns to their disheveled bachelor’s flat, he finds the detective on his back wearing three nicotine patches. Holmes explains: “It’s impossible to sustain a cigarette habit in London these days.”

Just for the record: Watson sleeps in a bedroom up the stairs from Holmes’ digs on Baker Street. But that prevents no one from assuming they might be gay. Mrs. Hudson will only say that she “takes in all types.” She’s happy to bring up a pot of tea now and then, but reminds the boys with a contemporary spin: “I’m your landlady, not your housekeeper.”

“Sherlock” airs on MPTV Channel 10, 8 p.m. Oct. 23, Oct. 31 and Nov. 7.

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