It’s not easy being Sherlock Holmes, whether back in Victorian England or the 21st century world that’s the setting of “Sherlock,” the British series which returns to PBS for a second season this Sunday night at 9.
But it’s even harder to be his friend.
Sherlock (played by the fabulously-named Benedict Cumberbatch) wants to be the smartest guy in the room, but he quickly grows bored if he doesn’t have an opponent capable of matching wits with him. He wants to be widely-recognized for his genius, but then left alone by the great unwashed. And he wants his inner circle – trusted sidekick Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman), friendly cop Greg Lestrade (Rupert Graves), landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) and lovestruck medical examiner Molly (Louise Brealey) – to be at his beck and call, to also shower him with praise for his cleverness, and not to be offended when he ignores social niceties, or, worse, uses his powers of deduction to inadvertently tear their personal lives to shreds.
The first season of “Sherlock,” with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss as head writers and Paul McGuigan as lead director, did a remarkable job of bringing the beloved but dusty character into the present day – and far better than the Robert Downey Jr. films did at bringing a present-day sensibility back to the 1800s. The new version made our hero adept with cell phones, the Internet and forensic science(*) while leaving him fundamentally the same man from the classic stories. Holmes may be a cliché, but change the context a little, find the perfectly aloof actor in Cumberbatch, give him dialogue from some of the cleverest writers in England (Moffat currently runs “Doctor Who”) and a visual style that’s vibrant and always shifting, and the same old Sherlock is again riveting.
(*) When I reviewed the first season, I wondered what crime fiction was like in a world where Sherlock Holmes stories didn’t exist around the dawn of the 20th century, given how many later detectives – including TV characters like Gil Grissom, Robert Goren and Greg House – were lovingly modeled on Holmes. We get a vague answer of sorts in this season’s third episode, where Inspector Lestrade explains Holmes’ value to the department by calling him “CSI: Baker Street.” My guess? “CSI” existed in this world, but with a different lead character.
The new season of “Sherlock” – like the last one, a collection of three 90-minute stories, this time loosely adapting “A Scandal in Bohemia,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Final Problem” – finds Holmes at a professional peak and an existential low point. After resolving last season’s cliffhanger involving arch-nemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott channeling Sam Rockwell), the first episode shows that Holmes’ exploits have made him something of a celebrity (including a running gag about the more traditional image of Holmes). But everyday cases bore him – he sends Watson to an unusual crime scene with a webcam, explaining, “This is a 6. There’s no point in me leaving the flat for anything less than a 7.” – and his fame is more an annoyance than anything.
Enter Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), reimagined by Moffat as one part industrial spy, one part high-priced dominatrix, to serve as both Holmes’ opponent and the possible woman of his dreams.
Among the series’ many visual flourishes(**) is the way Holmes’ legendary gift of observation is depicted as something akin to a superpower, with text appearing in thin air next to each detail he notices that others would miss. The gimmick has an unexpectedly funny payoff when Holmes gets his first look at Adler, and Cumberbatch and Pulver have an enormous amount of fun circling each other as each character is convinced they have the upper hand, only to frequently be proven wrong by the other.
(**) A new one that I didn’t love in this season: we see that when Holmes really needs to focus on a case, he goes to what Watson describes as “his mind palace,” which mainly makes him look like the Tom Cruise character from “Minority Report,” sliding random bits of data across an imaginary screen.
The third episode, another Holmes vs. Moriarty battle of wits, is just as entertaining. The season’s middle chapter feels more like an “X-Files” episode in which Holmes and Watson are subbing for Mulder and Scully, but it’s a well-done “X-Files” episode, at least, even if it might have worked better at a shorter length. (The first season’s middle chapter was also a problem, though “The Hounds of Baskerville” is a big step up from that.)
The new season also does a tremendous job of exploring Holmes’ relationship with Watson and his other allies. Where I watch “Big Bang Theory” sometimes and wonder why in the world the rest of the gang puts up with Sheldon (who has more than a little Sherlock Holmes in him, as well), the rapport between Cumberbatch and Freeman makes it obvious how much Watson enjoys Holmes’ company (and vice versa), even if Sherlock’s a classless oaf so much of the time. Sherlock is harder on his other “friends,” but the show is very much aware of that and uses that knowledge to great emotional effect in the third story.
That second episode, by the way, provides one of the more Holmes-ian lines of the season. Holmes and Watson have come upon a mysterious government research facility, whose friendly director tosses the “I could tell you, but then I’d have to kill you” cliché at Holmes.
“That would be tremendously ambitious of you,” Holmes replies, and Cumberbatch says it in a way that’s as much invitation as it is boasting. Holmes would welcome that challenge.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
NOTE: Same deal as last year, where the entire season had already aired in the UK well before it came to PBS. The spoiler rules for the blog say that anything that hasn’t aired in the U.S. yet counts as a spoiler, so anything beyond vague opinion about the season is not okay. And because so many of you have seen the whole thing (either because you live abroad or through, um, other means), it’s more trouble than it’s worth for me to do individual write-ups of each episode. I’ll be back after the third chapter airs so we can all discuss the season once we’re on the same page.