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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sherlock: Season 2

Though it aired months ago in Great Britain, the BBC’s Sherlock, written by the brilliant Steven Moffat (Coupling, the present incarnation of Doctor Who), has just finished airing in America. The series is an audacious undertaking, placing the familiar Arthur Conan Doyle characters in present-day London and seeing how the great detective might have made use of text messages and the Internet. Though the artifice may sound precious, Moffat’s writing is so pitch-perfect, and the performance by the cast so enjoyable, that the enterprise is a tremendous success.

Benedict Cumberbatch (from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) plays the great detective, and his ability to shoot out complicated rapid-fire dialogue in character makes it easy to believe in the role of the super-talented genius. Martin Freeman (Tim from the original British The Office) gives Dr. John Watson a world-weary relatability that is charming and empathetic. The back-and-forth between the two is often very funny, and informed by the idea that what was normal in 1890s London (two bachelors sharing a flat) would be the cause of much talk today.

Season 2 of the show is even more ambitious than the first. Moffat and crew have taken on three of Conan Doyle’s most-loved and most climactic stories. The first episode “A Scandal in Belgravia” is a spin on “A Scandal in Bohemia”, the story that introduced Irene Adler, the only woman to ever interest Sherlock Holmes. In the current iteration, Ms. Adler is a high-priced dominatrix who uses the secrets she has acquired as a way to protect herself. When the royal family worries that some incriminating photos in Ms. Adler’s possession might get out, Sherlock is approached by his brother Mycroft to get them back.

As in the original story, Irene Adler proves a capable match for Holmes, and his usual brilliance is thrown off by her beauty. The episode features some especially clever sleuthing (I enjoyed the solution behind the combination to Adler’s safe) and several neat twists and turns. It is, in short, everything you could want from an adventure story.

The second episode tackles The Hound of the Baskervilles, changing the original quite liberally for the sake of relevance. Here, Baskerville is a military base rumored to be the home of bizarre experiments, and the hound is a local rumor started and perpetuated by a local man named Henry Knight, who was petrified as he watched a giant hound rip his father apart.

The plotting of this installment is not quite as strong as the others, and the solution becomes extraordinarily convoluted, and worse, illogical by the conclusion. The episode tries too hard to throw Sherlock off his game, and while it is still fun to watch him at work, it needs to hang together better than this to truly be great television.

Luckily, the last installment of Season 2 rises to that level and beyond. “The Reichenbach Fall” is one of the most enjoyable episodes of television I have watched in some time. The episode draws heavily from Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” the infamous outing in which Holmes and Moriarty fall to their deaths over the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Here, Reichenbach instead refers to the detective himself, as having saved a painting of the falls, Sherlock becomes known as the Reichenbach Hero. There is also a more interesting meaning of the word “fall” involved.
The episode opens with a beautiful sequence wherein Moriarty breaks into the Tower of London, the Bank of England, and Pentonville Prison simultaneously. He’s caught sitting on the throne wearing the crown and waving the scepter, leading Holmes to believe that being caught is exactly what he wanted. There’s a trial, featuring Holmes as an expert witness, leading to the hilarious scene where the detective rudely corrects the prosecutor’s questioning and identifies the professions of all twelve jurors and points out the two who are having an affair together. When Moriarty is found not guilty in spite of the mountain of incriminating evidence, Holmes realizes the game is afoot, but what is the game?

Andrew Scott plays the criminal mastermind with a berserk energy and manic desire for chaos that are both breathtaking to watch. He’s also quite clearly having a lot of fun turning the emotional dial up to 11. Moffat’s script has him ingeniously toying with Holmes, all in the name of turning the public against him and convincing the world that the great detective is a fraud. The episode works as well as it does only because Moriarty’s plan is both chillingly evil and astonishingly brilliant. It all wraps up in a rooftop scene that will be dissected endlessly until whenever they get around to filming Season 3. Even if you’ve read the Conan Doyle story, the ending will manage to surprise you just the same.

BBC’s Sherlock nimbly balances reverence for the source material with the right amount of fun. Each 90-minute installment is jam-packed with action, adventure, and the signature deductions that endeared the original to millions of fans. If you’ve ever enjoyed a Sherlock Holmes story you will thoroughly enjoy the show. And if you’re the kind of Sherlock novice for whom Robert Downey Jr. is the definitive performance of the role, I implore you to watch.

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