The game is afoot, all right, with “Sherlock,” another delightful British import airing on PBS’ “Masterpiece.” Cleverly rebooting the great detective for the 21st century, the three-movie series features Benedict Cumberbatch — a wonderful actor with a funny name — in the title role, with Martin Freeman’s Dr. Watson now a veteran of Afghanistan. Although the second installment is inferior to those bracketing it, as a whole this “Masterpiece” offering is considerably more satisfying than Warner Bros.’ recent bigscreen revival, capturing the essence of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation with wit and flair.
“Doctor Who” alums Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss clearly had a ball re-imagining Holmes as a modern-day “consulting detective,” one who text-messages “Wrong!” to a gaggle of reporters during a news conference by the historically maligned Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves).
Briskly setting the scene, a wounded Watson — scarred more psychologically than physically by his time in the service — stumbles into Holmes’ orbit and is whisked onto a case involving a string of apparent suicides. But of course there’s more to them than that, as well as the shadowy threat — which comes to fruition in later chapters — involving someone named “Moriarty.”
Among the “CSI”-age innovations here is the wrinkle of having words pop up onscreen to help illustrate Holmes’ powers of deductive reasoning, while Watson — logically, if you think about it — now blogs about their various adventures.
Tapping into revisionist looks at the character (such as Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes”), there’s also a great deal of gay innuendo, with Holmes offering coyly that he is “married to my work” when he wrongly perceives Watson as coming on to him.
Marvelous in miniseries like “The Last Enemy,” Cumberbatch is well-suited to the part (as is Freeman), and the writers have done a splendid job of keeping the audience off-balance while weaving in elements of the Holmes mythology. The scenario in the third hour, in particular — as Moriarty taunts Holmes, literally speaking through a string of innocent pawns — proves genuinely suspenseful, and a little chilling.
For some, of course, any depiction of Holmes will pale next to the Basil Rathbone versions of the 1940s. Notably, those films, too, eventually shifted the character out of his literary time and into the then-present day, allowing him to thwart threats to England during World War II.
Clearly, there are few more durable figures in fiction, but capturing the fundamental appeal of Holmes is quite another matter. And on that level, “Sherlock” cannily cracks the case.