A topic for a longer post will be “Why I don’t watch much British TV”, but for now I’ll leave it at “I don’t, and it’s complicated”. The few bits of British TV that I rate as must-see however tend to be of the family targeted Saturday and Sunday night stuff, Doctor Who being a fine example, Primeval a more mediocre one. Sherlock, airing on BBC1 on a Sunday night and being written by Stephen Moffat of Doctor Who fame seemed a perfect fit. And it was.
Sherlock Holmes is in many ways an easy choice for any kind of remake, with complicated characters, interesting cases and an abundance of fans, I’m surprised its been so long since a television show was made about him. Reimagining him in 21st century London was a great idea, bringing a new twist to the situations and handily distancing it from the recent Robert Downey Jr film. The London that Holmes lives in however is still the same in many ways, vibrant and eclectic, so a Victorian throwback doesn’t actually stand out as much as you might think.
The casting was superb. I’d not heard of the fantastically named Benedict Cumberbatch before, but he’s breathtakingly good. He bounces around mentally and physically, rattles through the dialogue and leaves you equal parts impressed and irritated – perfect for Holmes. His long suffering companion Watson is played by the better known Martin Freeman who manages to convey that impressed/irritated dichotomy beautifully. He also manages the proud/ashamed, caring/infuriated and competent/insecure balanees, making Watson an amazingly complicated character hidden under an everyman kind of shell. Great actors, amazingly written characters, and fantastic chemistry – the holy grail.
If anything lets the show down it was the plots of the main mysteries. While Sherlock’s insights into small puzzles and people were borderline magic, the big case of each episode always seem to elude him, leaving me shouting at the screen “it’s obvious!” and getting increasingly frustrated. It’s a difficult balance to find, because you want the audience to be able to understand where the solution came from, but hopefully to not have them see it ½ hour before the supposed genius gets it. I think there were tricks they could have used (Watson failing to tell Holmes a vital clue, so the audience has seen more than Holmes has or something) but for some reason the writers fell down a bit there.
Back on the positive side and the show is beautifully produced. London looks great AND like London (even if it’s filmed in Cardiff), it’s not just the shiny buildings and tourist sights that are shown, but back streets and suburbia that look right. The direction uses a number of effect to good measure – smooth panning from one scene to the next, reflections and odd framing (probably leaving people watching in 4:3 a bit bemused). The slickness of the production is very impressive, from the music to the lighting, everything fits and works in a really creative and satisfying way.
The only other problem with the series is that it was so short. The long hour and half episodes work really well, allowing plenty of space for the mysteries and characters. But only three of them meant you were only just falling in love with it when it disappeared. Ending on a cliffhanger also felt a bit presumptuous, at only four and a half hours it felt we’d only just connected before it left us wanting more, it came across as a bit of a tease. The good (and unsurprising) news is that it will be back for a second series, the bad news is that it seems like a very long time to wait.