TV: Sherlock (Season One)

Sherlock (2010) is a contemporary reboot of the classic Arthur Conan Doyle series about the world’s most famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Good word of mouth brought it to our attention, but I came away with a mixed reaction: never have I seen such a promising pilot followed up by such an unmitigated disaster of a second episode. Fortunately the third episode redeems the season.

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as the new Sherlock: a pale, dark-haired,  arrogant, brilliant sociopath who consults for the police on their toughest cases. As the series begins, he’s joined by new flatmate Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), a rugged, danger-seeking war veteran just returning from service in Afghanistan. Despite an inherent distaste for Holmes’ unforgivingly conceited brilliance, Watson finds the exciting nature of Holmes’ work addictive, and the two team up — often contentiously — to puzzle over some truly baffling mysteries.

The first episode, “A Study in Pink,” is a brisk and twisty opening, in which Holmes investigates a bizarre series of “serial suicides.” It manages to establish Sherlock as an exasperatingly annoying, and yet somehow oddly admirable, intellect, while Watson proves an interesting, humanist foil for Holmes’ cold rationality. The series cleverly recasts the material for contemporary times (computers, phones, blogs, and so forth figure prominently in the detective’s arsenal), while also providing easter egg references for fans of the traditional lore. I found it wholly engaging and entertaining, and the same goes for episode three, “The Great Game,” which pits Holmes against a mad bomber who tests Holmes’ problem-solving prowess in a series of escalatingly dangerous puzzles.

But episode two, “The Blind Banker,” screws the pooch. Incoherently plotted, wonkily paced, and filled with unfortunate stereotyping, this episode perhaps explains why the season is so short: writing brilliant stories about brilliant detectives must be pretty difficult stuff. This one is a mess, and doesn’t even manage to recapture the carefully shaded reboot personas established so brilliantly in the opener. Holmes comes off mainly as a jerk, while Watson’s  rougher edges are rubbed off in favor of Martin Freeman comic relief. What an awkward, unfortunate follow-up to a promising start.

Two out of three ain’t bad, I guess: in the end I’m interested to see more, and Cumberbatch and Freeman have real chemisty as the crime-stopping odd couple. But how weird to think that you could skip an entire third of the season and not miss anything!

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