Only a psychic could have predicted that PBS would today be a cultural zeitgeist, home to some of the most talked-about television on the Internet and in the blogosphere. But in case Downton Abbey-fever wasn’t hitting hard enough, PBS this weekend aired the first episode of the second season of popular British import Sherlock. You’ve probably already heard of Sherlock. But, if not, here is the basic premise: It’s Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, but rather than donning tweed and solving crimes in Victorian London, this Sherlock is a 21st century wunderkind whose sharp wit and observational prowess are only matched by his handle on technology. You see, our Mr. Holmes texts these days, and he uses weather apps and GPS systems on his phone to solve crimes. And herein lies the value of this adaptation of Sherlock Holmes – we all know the character of Sherlock Holmes through a variety of iterations of the classic detective in pop culture. From Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr., Holmes has been done – and done well – before. But this Sherlock manages to be a truthful adaptation of the original stories and a time machine to the past, despite its modern setting. The truth of the stories is thanks to the dedication of
writers Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss, who update the deductive hero by sticking closely to the original texts. The time travel comes not from its setting, but from what the show’s setting does for a modern audience. In past versions of Sherlock Holmes – even the recent Guy Ritchie films with Downey Jr. and Jude Law – the world of Sherlock’s London is very much rooted in the past and is all about the costume drama, masking the ingenuity of the character in the process. Sherlock Holmes is always clever and deductive in these versions, but what these updates lose is just how ingenious the original character was and how much he exploited the rapidly evolving technologies of his time in his crime-solving. The new media of Sherlock Holmes’ time is now archaic in the face of 4G, forensic technology and wind turbines. Because
of this, we modern viewers lose some of the wonder that Conan Doyle’s contemporaries would have felt at Holmes’ manipulation and utilization of the new technologies of his time. Electricity and science have become so standard, we are blind to the wonders of human invention. To time travel with Sherlock, we must again feel a certain sense of awe at the way Holmes not only riddles out mysteries through his powers of observation, but how he exploits his own technology to figure it all out. In Sherlock, Moffatt and Gatiss are keenly aware of the role technology once played in these stories and reinvigorates that relationship between the reader and Holmes by not just presenting modern technology, but through incorporating into the style and atmosphere of the show. When Sherlock pads through computer files on a phone and they appear hovering in front of him, we are given a glimpse into the mind of this man and understand precisely how he uses it to solve the mysteries at hand. And this is time travel. Time travel back to Victorian London when a reader picks up the newest edition of Strand Magazine and is shocked and awed to see Holmes solving crimes using the stain on a man’s knees and the forensic study of tobacco ash. No disrespect to Mr. Downey – surely nothing can bring him down after the successful opening of The Avengers this weekend – but the Sherlock series, not Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, really takes the modern viewer back to the roots of the Sherlock Holmes stories. This adaptation is stunning in its creative fidelity to the source material and we can only lament that there aren’t more than three episodes in a season. Season 3, I’m waiting. No, really, Robert Downey Jr. will be OK. The Avengers made a lot of money in its opening weekend, and for good reason.