Sunday, October 24, 2010

pretty in pink

"nothing happens to me."

that's what army doctor john watson (martin freeman, the newly minted bilbo baggins) tells his therapist in episode 1 of the BBC miniseries sherlock, when she urges him to blog about his experiences as a way of working out the trauma of being in afghanistan. as this phrase is one of genre fiction's top 10 NEVER SAY THATs (along with "no one can stop me now" and "i think we're safe here"), it is absolutely no surprise that, a very short time later, watson comes face-to-face with his future partner in crime-fighting, sherlock holmes (the wonderfully named benedict cumberbatch).

holmes asks for a cell phone, watson offers his, and -- just like that -- the good doctor is pulled into a world where so much happens to him, he can scarcely believe his own words when he later tells someone he only met holmes yesterday.

wait a second, cell phone?! yep. steven moffat and mark gatiss's three-episode series, which debuted in july across the pond, is a thoroughly modern take on sir arthur conan doyle's vintage tales. it got picked up in the states by masterpiece mystery! and kicks off in southern california on PBS affiliates KOCE tonight at 9 and KCET thursday night at 9.

moffat is the current doctor who showrunner, and gatiss has both written and appeared in episodes of that venerable british sci-fi program, so it's no surprise that the UK press beat the comparison to death this summer, and i shan't belabor the point. suffice to say that both shows feature a lot of running, and cumberbatch's singular "consulting detective" bears more than a passing manic resemblance to 11th doctor matt smith's singular time lord. and, as smith's doctor sparked a renewed interest in harris tweed jackets, so did cumberbatch's detective spark excitement over sherlock's coat.

as we know from who reviver russell t. davies's spin-off series torchwood, the 21st century is when everything changes, and that includes sherlock holmes ... at least in terms of the trappings. he still grabs a london cab when dashing off to investigate, but the cabs have horsepower, not horses. he still alternately annoys and abets scotland yard's lestrade (rupert graves), but now he bugs the hapless detective inspector by texting rebuttals to the media in the middle of police press conferences. he still has an addiction, but it's to nicotine, not cocaine, although it's sort-of alluded that he had a more illegal addiction at some point. his science of deduction is now a website, but holmes still has a brother, mycroft (gatiss), who occupies a minor position in the british government or is the british government, depending on which version of his job description you believe, and who drives sherlock crazy with his concern.

but the main thing that hasn't changed is that sherlock holmes is still desperate to not be bored, a fact the villain in this first story is counting on.

the tale is titled "a study in pink," and it neatly mashes up details from other conan doyle stories with the plot of the novel a study in scarlet, the first appearance of holmes in print. as in the original, a mutual friend introduces watson to holmes. they meet at a hospital lab, holmes runs down all the reasons he might be a crap roommate, and watson is impressed by his future flatmate's whole deal. watson remains a wounded veteran of the afghanistan war, and moffat amusingly finesses the contradiction between the first novel (where watson's wound was in his shoulder) and later stories (where it's a leg wound) by labeling the latter a "psychosomatic injury." thus, watson walks with a limp and uses a cane, but no worries. the healing power of sherlock holmes is nearly as awesome as his giant deductive-reasoning brain.

pretty soon sherlock holmes and dr. watson are greeting mrs. hudson (una stubbs) at 221b baker street. and pretty soon after that, watson is pulled willingly, if confusedly, into his first case, involving a string of suicides that turn out to be murders most foul.

as with last year's sherlock holmes movie, the bromantic elements are emphasized, although moffat plays them less as oscar/felix odd couple shtick and more on the are-you-boys-TOGETHER? tip. the jangly-jaunty music, by david arnold and michael price, kind of reminded me of hans zimmer's score for the film, too. likewise, the dry, witty banter between our heroes flies fast and thick, which befits the feverish pace, slam cuts, swooping camera, and clever framing. sadly, there is not as much fire in the miniseries as in the film, but one cannot have everything.

at 90 minutes, each episode is nearly movie-length, and they all feel stuffed full (something that cannot always be said for the much shorter episodes of doctor who this past season). i almost felt like the series was written for me, a viewer who loves clever yarns, adept acting, and awesome overcoats. but then moffat went and slapped me in the face with a gratuitously sexist moment. holmes's demeaning remark concerning sgt. sally donovan's (vinette robinson) extracurricular activities yanked me right out of my isn't-this-fun? mood for a good two or three minutes. (yes, she actively hates him and calls him "freak," so obviously there's no love lost between these characters. but here's an idea: how about having an insulting exchange with a woman that doesn't involve basically calling her a whore? crazy, i know.)

anyway, the mystery is unraveled and holmes gets his man ... with more than a little help from watson, natch. before said man goes down for the count, he lets slip that he's working for someone else -- someone who has a great interest in holmes. "there's a name no one says," the killer taunts, "and i'm not gonna say it, either." (and it's not "voldemort," as any sherlock holmes fan has already deduced.) but eventually, he spills.

all three episodes are well worth watching, but the last one, "the great game" (penned by gatiss and debuting on KCET nov. 11 at 9 p.m.), is easily the best, despite the maddening cliffhanger. you don't really need a giant brain to figure out the mystery, but i promise you one thing: you will not be bored.

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