Something old, something new, something borrowed, something … clue?
That might well be the motto of Sherlock, PBS' freakishly popular import from the BBC. Starring the ever-busy Benedict Cumberbatch, this smart, stylish series lives where the Victorian era meets the Information Age, where Sherlock totes not just a magnifying glass, but a smartphone as well.
It's not the first time Sherlock Holmes has been updated for a modern audience, of course. In fact, it's turning into something of a cottage industry. Flip the telly over to CBS, and you'll see another modern Holmes in full-on sleuth mode, sussing out clues Stateside on Elementary. And, of course, there are the bawdy new Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr.
Key differences lie among the franchises. While the Downey flicks, for instance, may stay true to Doyle's time period, they exude a 21st-century entertainment ethos, full of stunts and quips and busty women and massive explosions. They're more Pirates of the Caribbean than Hound of the Baskervilles. Comparatively, and despite its modern setting, PBS' Sherlock feels older somehow—more true to Arthur Conan Doyle's literary roots.
Many episodes pull plots right from Doyle's written adventures, twisting them, to be sure, but still paying humble homage to the originals. The very first episode in Series 1, "A Study in Pink," is loosely based on "A Study in Scarlet." Series 2 gives viewers "The Hounds of Baskerville," a strange retelling of Holmes' most famous adventure. It was followed by "The Reichenbach Fall"—a tribute to "The Final Problem," in which Holmes and archnemesis Professor Moriarty supposedly plunge to their deaths off Switzerland's Reichenbach Falls. Fans of the detective were probably not too surprised that Sherlock also appears to die in that episode—hopping off the roof of St. Bartholomew's Hospital in front of a horrified Dr. Watson.
Doyle didn't manage to finally kill off Holmes, though, and neither did the BBC. Sherlock, both the detective and the show—which boasts only three episodes in each of its standard mini-seasons—keeps coming back for more mystery. Mr. Holmes is always ready to face new challenges and evildoers while donning his deerstalker hat for obligatory interviews. Clearly this Sherlock knows how to play to the press, and he's as brilliant and arrogant as ever. But he's also a little more insecure than Doyle drew him—a little more human, as it were. Without a little vulnerability, after all, Sherlock Holmes is about as compelling as the Internet.
This new Sherlock is a little more loveable than the original, then—and that's not just because of Cumberbatch's understated charisma. He doesn't do drugs, for instance, and has even been working hard to give up his trademark pipe. Some days are better than others, of course, but it's still a really good thing, given that he has a hard enough time staying alive as it is.
Other concessions to 21st-century sensibilities are less welcome. Sherlock swears here—as do other characters around him. And while Doyle's Holmes was prone to get into tricky scrapes on occasion, rarely were they so brutal or visceral as we see here.
And then, of course, there's the relationship between Holmes and Watson—written to be a strictly platonic friendship that, when looked at with a more jaded and salacious eye from the socio-sexual vantage point of the 2010s, can appear to be something more. As do Downey's movies, it's a theme the show winks at and plays around with.
"The Empty Hearse"
Sherlock's back—seemingly from the dead—and theories abound on how he faked his suicide. "Replays" involve images of dead bodies and fake gore; one posits that he and Moriarty are gay lovers. They're not, but a fantasy sequence shows Sherlock leaning in to kiss the man. And when Watson returns to 221B Baker Street, he tells the housekeeper that he's getting married. "So soon after Sherlock?" she says sincerely. "What's his name?"
We see Sherlock get captured and tortured (beaten). We don't see blows land, but we hear them (along with Sherlock's cries) and see his back covered with bloody wounds. Blood runs out of the detective's mouth. Watson beats up Holmes, too, leaving him with cuts on his face and a bloody nose. John is himself kidnapped and nearly set alight in a bonfire. We see a man put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger. Holmes envisions a bomb blowing up Parliament.
A DVD case has a drawing of a naked woman on it. A porn mag's cover showcases seductively clothed women. There are subtle indications that Watson's fiancée is already living with him, and we see passionate kissing. References are made to affairs.
Characters say British profanities like "b-llocks" (once), "b-gger" (once), "arse" (once) and "bloody" (four times), along with one each of "b‑‑tard," "d‑‑n", "c‑‑k" and "p‑‑‑." There's also an incomplete s-word, a play on a partial f-word and an obscene gesture. God's name is misused nearly 20 times, and Jesus' name is abused once. When somebody says "oh my god" upon seeing Sherlock, he quips, "Not quite." Something leering is said about a nun. (Note that PBS edited some of the harshest profanity—the near-f-word and "c‑‑k"—for American audiences.)
People drink champagne and smoke cigarettes. Holmes treats his parents rudely and disrespectfully. He sometimes breaks the law to preserve order.