Watching the first episode of Sherlock, series 2, it occurred to me that I’ve never seen a totally unsatisfying adaptation of a Sherlock Holmes story. Why? Even the wilder riffs on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s sleuth — such as the Steven Spielberg–produced FX-a-thon Young Sherlock Holmes and The Seven Per Cent Solution, in which the fictional sleuth seeks counseling from Sigmund Freud — earned more grins than groans from me.
Given that a great many Holmes adaptations tinker with (and sometimes outright jettison) Doyle’s original context, the key must be Doyle’s characters, who are so richly imagined and psychologically consistent that they ground storytellers’ goofier improvisations. Like Prince Hamlet, Emma Woodhouse, and Mr. Spock, they can be transplanted into new situations and make sense.
There’s no better example of this than Sherlock, the first season of which debuted on Masterpiece Mystery! last year. Created by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat (Dr. Who), the series transplants Doyle’s main characters to modern-day London and gives them thoroughly, at times distractingly, contemporary traits. The first episode, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” pushes both the series’$2 21st century plot elements and its production design and filmmaking tricks so far that at times the episode makes the recent super-slick, extra-busy Holmes movies (starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law) seem laid-back and classical in comparison.
This Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an ex-smoker who has the sullen demeanor and coiled energy of an intellectual bad-boy celebrity, and who only puts on the iconic deerstalker hat while trying to hide his face while leaving a police station. Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman) is an Afghanistan war veteran whose blog entries about his adventures with Holmes have turned them into minor celebrities. Holmes’s brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) is some kind of spy, associated at various points in the series with MI6 and the CIA. And the restless camerawork and jagged editing are wearisomely “modern” at times, though certain touches are undeniably effective (the best are the rapid-fire, meticulously labeled close-ups showing you how Holmes’s mind instantly processes visual information and draws conclusions). But in the end, none of the contemporary touches are make-or-break propositions, because these are still recognizably Doyle’s characters, and the roles are so brilliantly written and acted that even when the plots veer into preposterous, at times faintly James Bondian derring-do, the result is still pleasurable. Any conversation between Holmes and Watson is comic gold, and many of the ones in this premiere are platinum.
It’s hard to write about the Moffat-scripted premiere in detail without spoiling its delights; suffice to say that it picks up where series one’s “The Great Game” left off, with Holmes and Watson being held hostage by Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott). Moffat suddenly extracts our heroes from the jaws of doom and drops them into a new mystery involving a dominatrix named Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), who is holding incriminating information on somebody connected to the royal family and fears for her life as a result.
In the original Doyle story “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Adler was a theater performer who became the King of Bohemia’s lover. She was described as an “adventuress,” a euphemism for an ambitious, unscrupulous, scheming woman, and was described as having “the face of the most beautiful of women and the mind of the most resolute of men.” Like all the other characters in this update, Moffat’s version of Adler is superficially unrecognizable but ultimately fills the same storytelling role. She captures Holmes’s heart by proving her resourcefulness in dangerous situations, repeatedly outsmarting him, and proving that she understands what makes him tick on an emotional level — the level that Holmes hides from the rest of the world. After catching the detective trying to sneak into her brothel dressed as a priest, Adler says, “You know the problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? No matter how hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.” She’s a beautiful woman, but for Holmes, the real turn-ons are her intelligence and ferocious self-possession.
When this episode originally aired in Britain, there were gripes that Moffat’s Adler was too overtly sexualized and had too many hints of the slinky femme fatale, all of which made her a less progressive figure than Doyle’s original, who first appeared in 1891. I can see the point of such complaints. But given that Moffat’s version of Holmes is set in scandal-driven modern London and is keenly interested in the sexual kinks and anxieties of many of its characters (the old rumor that Holmes is a virgin gets resuscitated here, to mortifying and touching effect), the changes seem all of a piece. And in any event, there’s no denying that Cumberbatch and Pulver have phenomenal chemistry. They’re as witty, brittle, and relentlessly ego-driven as any of Howard Hawks’s great couples. There are so many fine details in this version of Holmes-Adler relationship that I won’t ruin them with a laundry list here. But I will say that none of them are ostentatiously smart or cutesy; they all enrich and deepen the characters, and ultimately build toward a climactic revelation — involving the code on Adler’s secret-filled cell phone — that’s both a superb bit of wordplay and a moving admission of Holmes and Adler’s deepest vulnerabilities. I could nitpick aspects of this series, and this episode especially (the fake-out coda stretches credulity, then snaps it like a rubber band), but what would be the point? Sherlock is a wonderful series. Just thinking about it makes me smile.