Sherlock: Why It’s The Best Show on TV

TV Features Sherlock
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Whoa, bold statement dude! Bold statements abound!

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking I’m the kind of wild card who plays fast and loose with phrases like “best show on television” after he’s just seen something moderately good. And you’d be right, normally. But I’m out on my limb for a purpose this time. Be forewarned that some serious, careening opinions are about to fall like luminous stalactites in a dark, dark cave. Or is it stalagmites? It doesn’t matter, because I’m in a euphoric place right now, and I have to spread the gospel. Sherlock, the BBC version that has absolutely nothing to do with Robert Downey Jr. or Guy Ritchie, is, in fact, the best show on television. And, lucky you, the first series is streaming on Netflix as we live and breathe, man.

Before I try to support the argument, let’s all take a step back and recognize the limitations of the word ‘best.’ Is it possible to compare a drama to a comedy, for instance? Can we compare a network show to something on HBO or Showtime, or an American show to a British counterpart? Shouldn’t we be categorizing?

Probably. So let’s get some opinions out of the way.

1. Community is the funniest show on television. Except it’s half-canceled, which opens the door for shows like Archer, Parks & Recreation, Louie, and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

2. The best American drama is Game of Thrones. Or Mad Men, if you want to pardon the current hiatus. The most overrated drama is Breaking Bad, which is a secretly terrible show that’s duped everyone into believing it’s a work of art.

(If you disagree with me, skip over this parenthetical. But seriously, did it bother nobody else that part of Gus’ big plan to outmaneuver Juan Bolsa was to call Hank like two seconds before he was going to be murdered by the cousins and have Hank do most of the dirty work? I mean, is that ridiculous, or what? And the henchmen never phoned back to Bolsa or anyone else to see if it was cool to kill Hank instead of Walt? They just took Gus’ word for it? I’m just picking out one episode here, but there are similar nonsensical turns in all of them. It’s stylized garbage without a real story, it moves at a snail’s pace, and the actors other than Walt and Jesse are hams. [Ed. note: Blasphemy!!] Also, Skyler is the most annoying character in television history. [Ed. note: Okay, you have us there.]

Sorry, should I have said there were spoilers? And should I be focusing on the topic at hand? Indeed, so back to business.)

The greatness of those shows notwithstanding, there’s only one that combines entertainment, intelligence, humor, and seamless narrative to snatch the title of Best Show on Television. Sherlock is the only contender.

I don’t have to get into the character of Sherlock Holmes, right? The archetypal one? Okay, I’ll do it for the total newbies: He’s a British detective, but he works on his own as a sort of consultant, making no money. The man is in it for the love of the game. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote the original stories, and in most of them Holmes uses his power of observation to pick up clues that ordinary folks, including the police, miss. He has an assistant named Watson whose main function, at least in the past, has been to look on in amazement and ask Holmes how he deduced that the woman in the burgundy hat was killed by the sound of an off-key pipe organ (for instance), since Holmes tends to arrive at his conclusions without explaining the thought process leading from point A to point C.

There have been a lot of Sherlock Holmes adaptations, and they’ve met with varying levels of success. The BBC version is, by far, the best. And it all starts with Holmes himself.

You’ll be happy to know that the titular character is played by an actor named Benedict Cumberbatch. (I’m personally delighted that I’m not making that name up.) He looks roughly like you’d expect a Benedict Cumberbatch to look, which is to say tall, rangy, aristocratic, pompous (same thing as aristocratic?), thin, intelligent, and imposing. He cuts a mean profile whether standing or moving, and his voice is a deep, measured instrument that’s flamboyant while remaining composed in the classical British manner. You get the sense that he’s a man of such ego and brainpower that he can pull off the rare feat of controlling his mild insanity. Cumberbatch plays Holmes like the kind of guy who’s fascinating and even hysterical to watch from afar, but around whom you’d never want to spend many real-life hours.

Which is exactly how Holmes should be portrayed. Cumberbatch retains a few refined mannerisms to indicate his upbringing, but his fearless approach to human interaction is so eccentric that you’re constantly riveted. He’s a brilliant actor and a comic genius.

If you’re like me, you’ll also be happy to know that Watson is played by Martin Freeman, famous for his role as Tim in the BBC’s original version of The Office (and soon to be famous as Bilbo Baggins). One of the many strengths of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, the co-creators of that show, was casting, and they found a gem in Freeman. He was the perfect straight man for David Brent and Gareth Keenan, bringing humor and humanity to a role that could have been very boring, and he does the same as Watson to Cumberbatch’s show-stopping Holmes. Freeman carves out his own space in the subservient place, creating a character you can root for and enjoy without detracting attention from the virtuoso.

And the dialogue between the two is pitch-perfect. The pace of the show is fast and frantic, and Sherlock’s tendency to not explain his next move keeps the momentum alive with wit, suspense, and uncertainty. Take, for example, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” when Holmes asks Watson to punch him in the face for an ambiguous reason:

Sherlock Holmes: Punch me in the face.
John Watson: Punch you?
Holmes: Yes, punch me, in the face. Didn’t you hear me?
Watson: I always hear “punch me in the face” when you’re speaking, but it’s usually subtext.
[Sherlock punches Watson in the face and Watson punches him back, before jumping onto his back and grabbing him in a chokehold]
Holmes: Okay, I think that’s enough now.
Watson: You want to remember, Sherlock, I was a soldier. I killed people!
Holmes: You were a doctor!
Watson: I had bad days!

This is just one of many examples of the stellar interplay between the two, which reveals Holmes’ eccentricities while simultaneously empowering Watson as sovereign man. That’s no easy task, but the writing is sure-footed at every step. As far as plot, the core of the episodes so far have been taken from Conan Doyle’s source material, but changes are made to set the tale firmly in 21st century London. We’ve all seen examples of poor modern adaptations—most of them involving Shakespeare, sadly—but here the writers meet their goal without even minor hiccups.

Which leads to the production. Sherlock was the brainchild of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, both writers for Dr. Who, the BBC’s long-running science-fiction mainstay. The first series of Sherlock, released in 2010, consisted of three episodes of 90 minutes each. The two best of the bunch were directed by Paul McGuigan, who established a bouncing, self-propelling style that suited the energy of the characters.

Several musical themes are used as segues throughout, and the opening score has that somber, vaguely Russian chamber sound to perfectly suggest espionage and intrigue. As the plot develops, text bubbles float above cell phones, clues and memories flash around characters’ heads, and revelations are accomplished with a showy, but not cloying, verve. I’d love to describe the way story and style and character merge to create a daring visual masterpiece that will—no joke—revolutionize how future television shows are made, but it has to be seen to be believed, and anyway I’d be spoiling your experience. I’ll allow myself that liberty with Breaking Bad, but with Sherlock it would be an inexcusable crime.

As I mentioned, the first series of three episodes from 2010 is streaming on Netflix. The second series, again featuring three 90-minute episodes, began on Jan. 1. “A Scandal in Belgravia,” the first installment of series two, was perhaps the most brilliant yet, and, along with the second, can be found online in ways that are probably impolite to discuss. The final episode comes out on 15th, so this is an ideal time to discover the show. Nine hours of remarkable drama await, and believe me when I say that it won’t feel like enough.

It’s possible that I’m biased. I’ve been a sucker for spy novels and detective stories since I was young. I grew up on the Hardy Boys, and graduated from there to Frederick Forsyth and John le Carré. I recently discovered the great spy novels of Alan Furst, and I’m still sufficiently regressed that if I discover a website full of riddles, my afternoon is doomed. But quality is quality, and my own predilections aside, I’m convinced that Sherlock is the best thing happening in current television, and I’m grateful to be along for the ride.

As Holmes himself said, during a moment of lonely revelation, “Look at you lot. You’re all so vacant. Is it nice not being me?”

It is, it is, it is—we’re here to be surprised.

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