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TV Weekend: The Return of Sherlock

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How is it possible that a show based on a set of stories that began in the 19th century could be the freshest detective show on television? Sherlock, the British rethinking of Sherlock Holmes, managed that in 2010 with crisp scripts from Steven Moffat and a visual playfulness in rendering the logical leaps that the new Holmes uses to solve conundrums.

But maybe the most impressive thing about Sherlock, which impresses again in the three-episode season that returns on PBS Sunday, is its attention to a piece of technology even older than the 19th century: the human brain.

Mystery stories are perpetually popular because audiences love to solve along with the characters. But the actual act of solving—of thinking, of observing and piecing together evidence—is tough to dramatize. Some mysteries deal with this by making the story the star of the show (Law & Order), others by distinguishing themselves with the eccentricities of their characters (Columbo, Monk).

Sherlock, which pairs its twitchy, socially awkward hero (Benedict Cumberbatch, a name so British it should come with a side of toad-in-the-hole) with sober, wry war vet Watson (Martin Freeman) definitely falls into the latter camp, but it does something more. Moffat has figured out how to make the deduction process—not the clues but the actual act of piecing them together—into a physical subject itself. Part of that has to do with the show’s distinctive use of effects and visual trickery: a scene shifts to another location around the characters as they spin out theories, sets of words, facts and anagrams spring to life on screen before Sherlock’s eyes.

But it’s not just screen trickery at the show’s heart: the captivating Cumberbatch is the show’s best special effect. His face and body are consumed by the process; when Sherlock is working through a hypothesis, the abstract connections that he’s visualizing are more real to him than the people in the room with him. When other people can’t follow his thinking, it physically pains him; when he’s taken with a theory, you get the sense that he is literally unable to do anything but pursue it.

This makes Cumberbatch’s performance a delight to watch, but it also makes his cases with Watson distinctive kind of adventure. Sherlock is imperious, certain and deaf to social graces; his pairing with Watson is like an intellectual joyride–a crime-solving version of Withnail and I, in which a straight-man is carried along by the force of his partner’s unrefusable personality.

This makes Sherlock a genius but not necessarily a pleasure. In one of the new episodes, Sherlock mentally retreats into his “memory palace,” a mnemonic device by which one creates a mental map of a building in which to store remembrances. Watson explains the concept to an observer, who asks—since the virtual storage site can be any kind of building—why Sherlock created a palace. “He would, wouldn’t he?” Watson shrugs.

The new episodes attempt to delve further into the virtual space of Sherlock’s personality; the first, a political-thriller update of “A Scandal in Bohemia” (titled “A Scandal in Belgravia”), presents him with something like a love interest. Still, we’re reminded that Sherlock’s mind is indeed a palace–spectacular, grand, but not necessarily comfortable and homey. A splendid place, nonetheless, to visit one more time.