Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in "Sherlock." (Colin Hutton, Hartwood…)
For those in preemptive mourning for Fox's Sherlock Holmes-inspired "House,"which comes to an end later this month, a bit of comfort: Season 2 of "Sherlock,"the BBC's flirty but still faithful contemporary rendition of the unforgettable detective, begins on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery" Sunday night.
As reimagined by British TV maestro Steven Moffat ("Doctor Who," "Jekyll") and Mark Gatiss ("Doctor Who"), this Sherlock, played with aquamarine and alabaster radiance by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a London consulting detective as brilliant, icy and occasionally preening as the original. He resides at 221 B Baker Street with John Watson (Martin Freeman), a military doctor last posted in Afghanistan whom Holmes met during a search for a roommate; the show's premiere episode was titled, "A Study in Pink," a play on the first Sherlock Holmes story, "A Study in Scarlet."
Watson, undone by his war experience, is now content to aid Holmes in his various cases, blogging about such cases as "The Geek Interpreter" and "The Speckled Blonde," hilarious twists on original titles, so we know the playfulness of the paean will continue. Deepen, actually, to include in this season's first moments such canon-phile treats as 1895 — the number of hits Watson has on a particular blog is surely a reference to a famous line from one of the first Sherlockian odes — and the appearance of the famous deerstalker hat.
After picking up where the last story left off — Watson swathed in explosives, arch nemesis Moriarty (a crazy great Andrew Scott) cackling threats in the background — this season's three episodes tackle the duo's most famous cases, including "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Hound of the Baskervilles" and "The Final Problem," all renamed and refurbished with Moffat's signature alchemy of high-energy tension and cleverly literate humor. "We are in Buckingham Palace, the very heart of the British nation. Sherlock Holmes, put your trousers on," says Sherlock's brother Mycroft (Gatiss doing wonderful double duty) at one point in the proceedings.
In "A Scandal in Belgravia," we meet the famous Irene Adler, originally a former actress who earned the detective's lifelong admiration by outwitting him during a case involving her past indiscretions with a member of foreign royalty. This being the third millennium, Adler (Lara Pulver) is now a dominatrix, her secret papers are photos involving a member of the British family. The case is much more complicated than that of course, so much more that it, as with the episodes that follow, occasionally threatens to collapse under its own writhing weight.
Fortunately, the thrill of Sherlock Holmes was never so much plot as character. The cases came and went and our eyes were always on the man at the center — seduction through deduction. "Smart is the new sexy," concurs this Adler, only there's nothing new about it. We've always thrilled to both the character's obsession with facts and his fractured attraction to those around him, and Cumberbatch, the most physically beautiful man to inhabit the role thus far, infuses his Sherlock with a passion that is as dangerously intense as it is highly selective.
Whether turning a younger brother's ire on Mycroft ("I'll play mother," Mycroft says, pouring tea; "And there you have our childhood in a nutshell," snaps Sherlock), defending Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) against both rudeness and danger, or crossing intellectual and sexual swords with Adler, this Sherlock is a man of painfully restrained passion. His mind may whirl at breakneck speed (cleverly annotated by onscreen definitions of what he is seeing) but his heart beats never far behind.
That, more than the blogs or the cellphones, is the true modernization of the character, one that takes into account the general de-stiffening of the national upper lip and the shifting needs of contemporary drama. Mycroft, Mrs. Hudson and even Det. Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), originally crafted almost purely for exposition, are all granted a depth and freedom that adds, in turn, to the complexity of the central character. But it's Watson who benefits the most, with Freeman capturing the careful balance of fascination, irritation, admiration and love with a subtle mastery that, in the 11th hour, saves the season's final episode from all its necessary contrivances.
It is Watson who reminds us, as he always did, that it wasn't the monograms on cigarette ash or the specialized knowledge of London's various topsoils that made Holmes such an enduring character. It was the man who delighted in disguises, who got bored and shot holes in his wall, who steadfastly admired the woman who bested him. It was never the brain, or the hat, that made the man; it was the brief but undeniable flashes of his humanity.