(BBC) Sherlock has returned with a second series of three hour-and-a-half episodes. If you watched the first series, then you know why you should be watching this one. It’s one suspenseful game after another as the Great Detective negotiates the modern age of texting, blogging, and international terrorism. The show brims with visual style, snappy dialogue, and mind-bending sequences of deduction.
Many of us were first introduced to Benedict Cumberbatch — the name that launched a thousand Google searches — through his brilliant portrayal of Sherlock Holmes as a self-proclaimed “high-functioning sociopath.” Since the first series aired, we’ve sought him out in other shows and films as diverse as The Last Enemy; War Horse; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. What’s remarkable then, upon returning to Sherlock, is just how unrecognizable he is. The man truly has great range, and here seems like a completely different person than in his other more reserved roles. He commands the screen with unparalleled intensity and charisma, making you like and dislike him in equal measure.
As the Guiness World Records’ “most portrayed movie character” — with 75 actors playing him in over 200 films — Cumberbatch has his work cut out for him if he’s going to create a memorable version of Holmes, but he makes it look easy. His secret may be the air of awkward vulnerability that comes naturally to him; it lends Holmes’ overblown egotism a certain humanity, as though he’s using his genius to compensate for past traumas and a frightening loneliness.
This is where Martin Freeman’s long-suffering Dr. John Watson enters the picture as Holmes’ constant companion and grudging admirer. There’s a running joke throughout the series in which people constantly assume the two are a gay couple and Watson tries to deny it. It seems like a throwaway gag until the later episodes explore the pair’s relationship and lead you to wonder if there mightn’t be some truth to the idea. Watson certainly seems to get very little other than condescension and abuse out of the time he spends with the exasperatingly self-centered Holmes, so he must have a deeper reason for staying. Even if it’s just a Platonic love between the two men, it’s still powerful enough to overshadow either of their halfhearted attempts at heterosexual relationships.
“A Scandal in Belgravia” does explore Holmes’ attraction to a ruthless woman named Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), but it’s an attraction based mostly on his respect for her intellectual skill. There’s the suggestion that Holmes may in fact still be a virgin, and that his interest in sex is precluded by his sociopathic tendencies and his dedication to the life of the mind. Sgt. Donovan's (Vinette Robinson) early assertion that Holmes will one day get bored and turn to crime himself is developed further in “The Reichenbach Fall” when his nemesis tries to frame him as a fraud. Andrew Scott's Jim Moriarty is a gleefully over-the-top madman who's fascinating to watch.
Speaking of being fascinating to watch, the series features some of the most striking photography in recent memory. Each shot is beautifully composed, like a Renaissance painting or an obsessively detailed diorama. The show is shot and edited in a style that might be called frenetic or even hallucinogenic. It seems designed to put you inside the whirling, racing mind of Holmes himself – never still, never content.
“The Hounds of Baskerville” is a clever take on one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most popular Holmes novels. In it, Baskerville is updated from a fog-shrouded ancestral hall to a military base possibly conducting genetic experiments to create monsters. Russell Tovey plays the tormented heir to the Baskerville legacy, and that's a smart bit of casting, as he's known to fans of the BBC's Being Human for playing George the werewolf. That reference isn't lost on Holmes and company as they investigate tales of a gigantic hound stalking the moors around Baskerville.
Special mention should be made of Mark Gatiss, known to comedy nerds as a member of The League of Gentlemen and to sci-fi nerds as a writer and performer in the new Doctor Who. His portrayal of Holmes' uptight brother Mycroft is a joy to watch, and the interplay between the bickering brothers is frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Gatiss and Steven Moffat – head writer and executive producer for Doctor Who, and screenwriter for The Adventures of Tintin – have created a contemporary version of Holmes that's nearly as brilliant as the man himself. It nails the ways in which Doyle's iconic character would respond to modern technology designed to bring us all together without losing the essential misanthropy that keeps Holmes forever separated from his fellow human beings. Sherlock has already won multiple awards and been renewed for a third series, so there's much more tension-filled fun in store for us. And when the shouting's over and the last mystery is solved, we'll still have a Holmes that will stand the test of time for years to come.
Why We Like It: smartly written, clever banter, real love and respect between Holmes and Watson, a hugely charismatic performance from Benedict Cumberbatch