Television Review: Sherlock: A Study In Pink

Although we naturally (and quite rightly) think of Sherlock Holmes as a character comfortably ensconced in Victorian London, with its hansom cabs rattling down cobblestone streets, yellow fog, and helmeted bobbies, the idea of updating the character isn’t actually a new one. The early Holmes films were always set in the year of their production, just as we today think nothing of seeing James Bond (whose stories were written in the 1950s and ’60s) using a laptop computer or carrying a cell phone. The first Holmes film actually set in period was The Hound of the Baskervilles, starring Basil Rathbone, released by Twentieth Century Fox in 1939. Then, after one more Victorian film for Fox (The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), the series moved to Universal and back to the cheaper approach of updating.

I was prepared to dislike the new BBC series Sherlock, broadcast on PBS, but to my surprise I quite liked it. The new Holmes operates as a police consultant in contemporary London. The police are suspicious of him (one accuses him of being a “psychopath,” to which he replies that he’s a high-functioning sociopath). He doesn’t wear a deerstalker or Inverness cape, but those costume elements have tended to be overused (and inappropriately used) in films and TV shows anyway. The modern world doesn’t allow him to smoke, so he relies on multiple nicotine patches when he needs to think out a problem. He does take drugs. The actor who plays him (one who rejoices in the name Benedict Cumberbatch) looks too young for the part, but has the attitude exactly right.

He is supported by one of the best Watsons I’ve ever seen (Martin Freeman), like the original a recently returned wounded veteran of a war in Afghanistan. He’s seeing a psychologist who thinks his limp is psychosomatic, and is right. However, she thinks he’s suffering from PTSD, while Holmes immediately recognizes the truth, that Watson’s become an action junkie, and is starved for adventure—a commodity his new fellow lodger is ready and willing to supply.

There are even some references to the idea, common among what C. S. Lewis once called the “amateur psychological wiseacres,” that Holmes and Watson were a homosexual couple. That idea, I’m happy to report, is treated as comic, as it should be.

I think what pleased me best about the episode, though, was that it was clearly written by people who know the Holmes stories, and enjoy riffing off the “canonical” material. For instance, in the scene where the body is found, the word “RACHE” has been scratched in the floor by the victim (in the original version, it was written in blood on the wall by the murderer). In the original, Inspector Gregson assumed that someone started writing the name “Rachel” and was interrupted. Holmes condescendingly informed him that “Rache” is German for revenge.

In this version, Inspector Lestrade suggests that the victim must be German, and Holmes condescendingly informs him that it’s surely an unfinished “Rachel.”

This episode, called A Study in Pink, is loosely based on A Study In Scarlet, the first Sherlock Holmes mystery. I give the writers full marks for taking on the job of adapting this particular Holmes adventure, a story so improbable and convoluted that I don’t think anyone has ever dramatized it before (though the title has been used for a film). A Study In Scarlet is interesting to readers as an introduction to some fascinating characters, but involves an interminable flashback set in the American west (Doyle was always at his weakest as a writer when venturing abroad). This new version avoids all that, providing the viewer with a competent, plausible modern tale that touches base with the original in enough places to please Sherlockians.

The bottom line is that it’s a lot of fun, with special joys for fans of Conan Doyle. Recommended.

13 thoughts on “Television Review: Sherlock: A Study In Pink”

  1. The modern world doesn’t allow him to smoke, so he relies on multiple nicotine patches when he needs to think out a problem. He does take drugs.

    Yet more evidence there’s something inverted in the world of political correctness.

    Lars, have you ever read Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald”? It’s his blending of Holmes with Lovecraft and is actually quite good.

  2. First I’ve heard of this, and I’ll try it.

    Here a week before the election, drowning in political ads paid for by giant corporations disguised by happy-freedom names, I’d love to see an “updated” Holmes in which he tracks down a current-day CEO Moriarty!

  3. We’ve been watching the Masterpiece Mystery Theatre offerings every Sunday for months now. I was so relieved that the dreary Wallander series was over and was thrilled that next up was some Sherlock Holmes. I was disappointed to find that it was neo-Sherlock, but then like you I thought the production was terrific and enjoyed every minute. I particularly enjoyed the way the show was set in an alternate universe where none of the 21st-century characters had yet heard of Sherlock Holmes.

    There’s been quite a rash of these preternaturally-insightful-mystery-solver shows in recent years: The Mentalist, Psych, Monk, even House, and they mostly proceed from the rich vein opened up by Conan Doyle, especially the ones most focused on a comic/tragic high-functioning Aspergerish hero. I guess they’ve got my number exactly. I can’t get enough of them.

  4. “House,” in fact, was expressly modeled on Sherlock Holmes (a House is not a Holmes). Wilson is Watson. Cuddy, I suppose, must be Lestrade, and the diagnostic team would be the Baker Street Irregulars, though I’m pushing the comparison at this point.

  5. Lars, great review, I watched it last night. As a Holmie (?) I expect to be disappointed as well, but not so. It was very, very good.

    I loved Martin Freeman, got excited about his character the second I saw the war footage that opens it up.

    You should check out the one Loren referred to by Gaiman. “A Study in Emerald” is a short, and it’s well worth your time. I’m not really a Gaiman fan either.

    http://neilgaiman.com/p/Cool_Stuff

    The layout is pretty sweet too.

    Good show, Lars. BwB is tops.

  6. American Gods is awful. Terrible, no good, very bad. I can understand how it would turn you off to him. Fortunately, everything else I’ve read of Gaiman’s is much better, for what it’s worth.

  7. I’ll second (third?) the chorus of read-Gaimans, but with a caveat.

    Gaiman’s short fiction turned me off, and I haven’t read American Gods for the very reason that I expect the same sort of cynical, meandering free-association as in the worst of his short fiction. Anansi Boys and Stardust are entirely different, because he chooses brilliant literary models and follows them faithfully (if twistily.)

    Anansi Boys is a P.G. Wodehouse novel with a socially awkward black English protagonist whose father was the trickster-god Anansi and whose brother inherited both his divine powers and his irresponsibility. Stardust is a fairy tale in the Princess Bride vein, but (comparing book to book) better because less postmodern and anxious, once you get past the unsettling-if-superficially-lighthearted introduction.

    If you check out Stardust, you will want to know that DC Comics issued the first edition with Charles Vess’s illustrations on most every page. It is beautiful, but as with the best author-illustrator collaborations, Vess allows his natural creativity to move in ways that Gaiman’s story doesn’t, producing a slightly jarring melange. I will never read the non-illustrated version, but I understand that tastes differ.

  8. Also, the Stardust movie is on all counts inferior to the book: more cliche, less honesty about sexual morality (though the same amount of sex), a relatively lifeless female co-star (when the book’s heroine was spectacularly three-dimensional), and a too-long, too-ridiculous air-pirate diversion (expanded from 1-2 pages in the book).

    That said, it’s still probably in my top 10 list for fantasy movies, if only because there are only about 5 that I’d call truly great.

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