Modern 'Sherlock' Stays True

When you think of Sherlock Holmes, chances are you think of the lean and tall frame, the angular face, and the commanding deep voice of the legendary Basil Rathbone. But for the next few weeks, at least, “Masterpiece Mystery” would like you to think of somebody else in the same role: Benedict Cumberbatch.

This is the second “Sherlock” for PBS, and of course there have been a whole slew of cinematic Sherlocks. The new series, though, is set in the England of today. The London eye hovers over the city. Watson writes a blog instead of a journal. The Baker Street Irregulars, Arthur Conan Doyle’s lovable street urchins, are now the Homeless Network.

But while the difference in time is eye-catching and often provocative, what makes “Sherlock” so good is how close it is to Doyle — not how different. As in the book, Holmes is looking for a roommate at 221B Baker Street and Watson, just returned from attending the troops in Afghanistan (as in the book) is his man.

Watson is Martin Freeman — who was in the original British version of “The Office” as Tim Canterbury, who became Jim in the American version — and the good-humored chemistry between the two couldn’t be better.

Cumberbatch, the bad guy in “Atonement”, is reminiscent of Jesse Eisenberg’s Mark Zuckerberg in “The Social Network” — a man who’s all unbelievable intellect and no discernible emotion. But in the case of Cumberbatch’s Holmes, there’s a wink in his eye, and in his voice, that lets you know there’s a soul beneath the surface. He has a touch of Pierce Brosnan’s Remington Steele in the way he carries himself, but has none of the campiness of Brett.

The creative team behind the show is Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat of “Dr. Who” fame. There’s a touch of MTV technique in the quick-cutting chase scenes — done mostly on foot, now, rather than in those hansom cabs of yore. And some of Holmes’ thought process is shown in thought balloons minus the balloons (they just kind of float across the screen.)

At the end of the day, it’s still Rathbone’s voice I hear when I go back and read the stories, but comparisons are beside the point. When you’re watching Cumberbatch and company, you’re not thinking of anybody else.

This program aired on October 21, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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