Mad, Mad Men
“Girlfriends…not really my area.” (Sherlock Holmes, Sherlock)
That so-called area Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes reference to in the above quote is his obsessive passion for solving crimes. Season one (overall just three 90-minute episodes) last year provided us with a good measure of the man and crime-fighter wrapped up within his gaunt frame. Based on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s beloved detective, this quirky series returned on New Year’s Day with an astonishing high quality premiere: Sherlock meeting—and being outshone—by his match, the enchantress Irene Adler (Lara Pulver) in A Scandal in Belgravia.
Season one also set the premise of how Holmes met and roped Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) into his obsession with mysterious deaths. As this is a contemporary crime drama, some embellishment was needed to modernize the characters and the writers Stephen Moffat & Mark Gatiss have done this seamlessly. It helps that they’re hopeless Doyle-lovers themselves, so much so that they’ve sat out two different setbacks just to bring the series to fruition and broaden the chummy relationship between the two heroes.
Such dedication translates easily unto the screen as the detail to specifics and literary smarts is absorbing. Cumberbatch’s lips move so swiftly when going over crime details that it’s unnerving to the point of silent awe. Freeman as Watson is reinvented here as a wounded war vet, returning to London in need of accommodation and, more direly, distraction. His relationship with Holmes—treated as something slightly more than brotherly love—morphs so far this season into a perfect fit. Like any crime-fighting duo, they can interpret each other’s eccentricities and, given the oddball Holmes naturally is, this makes for the wittiest writing I’ve come across on television since Frasier.
A Scandal in Belgravia also proves how much meatier the characters have become in a relatively short space of time. They’re vastly more humorous now: Holmes ends up at Buckingham Palace in white sheets to help his brother, Mycroft (a smarmy Gatiss) retrieve damning pictures of a minor royal member from Adler’s phone. The banter is arresting as Holmes gets cracking only to be visually cuckolded by Adler’s first encounter with him. She appears in the door frame nude and, for once, Holmes’ sixth sense is unable to scan someone. He is spellbound while she remains one step ahead of him except for one last brilliant trick by Holmes that dooms her to grudging defeat. That doesn’t prove to be the end of her though as Sherlock realizes that as she had earlier saved his life (after a brutish encounter with Moriarity) he should return the favor and that he does in a stunning bit of heroism.
As if taking its cue from the recent Sherlock Holmes: Games of Shadows, this season has more pop culture references juxtaposed to Victorian-inspired themes than before. In episode two (The Hounds of Baskerville) there is a stunning sequence where Holmes is involved with visual memory and he ends up in a three second Elvis Prestley impersonation. It’s an implausible twist but one so wittily delivered that it’s not hard to see why critics have waxed lyrical about the show and why it won the BAFTA for best drama TV series (2011).
Cumberbatch’s mad hatter look and confidence is a huge part why it succeeds also. His brand of whimsy matches up nicely with anything Robert Downy Jr. can conjure without overdoing it. It helps that British audiences historically appreciate witty crimes far more than just the cold semantics of killings and medical intricacies, which is the only real difference between Sherlock and the American CSI model. For Holmes, aesthetics and style are everything, even if solving something as simple as the password on a Blackberry devise or more challenging stuff like saving a woman from a sure beheading.
So far we’re shown a more vulnerable side of Holmes and the season seems destined to also unravel even more frailties in his persona, as in the case of season one’s The Blind Banker where his theories led to personal danger even when he was aware of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Adler returns to join forces with him either. She remains the closest thing to a ‘love interest’ in Holmes’ world of flashy murders and government investigations. More importantly, she is the yin to his yang. He already has Watson for heteronymous companionship and Moriarty (Andrew Scott) ready to kill him at any time. Everything else just isn’t his area or doesn’t retain his interest for long. His is a life of always battling inertia and exploding when the pressure is on. I, for one, can’t wait to see him rabidly picking at the pieces in future episodes like it was one the nicotine patches lying decorously on his arm.