Sherlock Holmes — you all know that guy. (And if you don’t, I would very much like to speak with you; your strange case interests me.) Like Santa Claus or Peter Pan or Hamlet, he is among those — spoiler alert! — fictional characters who stand for a whole class of behavior and purpose and who shape the very way we think about thinking. We greet his periodic returns to the screen with excitement, but also with trepidation: As a man out of copyright, he is subject to all sorts of remaking and remodeling and speculation upon his closeted character. (I don’t mean sexually closeted, but there’s speculation on that account too.) He has been used, and he has been abused.
Holmes is the Hero as Pathology, and even before Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss contrived to revive him as a 21st-century man in “Sherlock” — a series of three feature-length adventures beginning Sunday on KOCE and Thursday on KCET — we got used to seeing him shaped weekly into Gregory House, M.D. The extensive parallels matter little now on “House,” but the fact is that there is always room in our hearts, and on our televisions, for a brilliant, dashing, antisocial deductive reasoner.
Moffat is the show runner on “Doctor Who,” and his Holmes is cut from the same cloth as his Doctor — not quite of this Earth, mad to all appearances, full of random facts, given to sudden quick movements, with a horror of boredom and a love of risk. (It also reminds us, conversely, that “Doctor Who” is structured as a mystery, and that the Doctor’s own archenemy, the Master, is very much a Moriarty.) Star Benedict Cumberbatch is tall and narrow in the familiar mode, with a haughty intensity but also something of a sense of fun. It takes all of 30 seconds, watching him, to go from “Hmmm,” to “Oh, yes.” As the kids say, he owns this.
Watson is played by Martin Freeman, a sensitive, solid Everyman sort best known here as Tim in the British version of “The Office” and as Arthur Dent in the film “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” and who was just tapped to play the lead in Peter Jackson’s film of " The Hobbit.” Like his original, he’s a veteran of an Afghan war, but more altered, psychologically, by the experience. (He misses the action.) Still, the character is basically comic, not in the famously huffing, puffing way of Nigel Bruce, but as a dry, ironical foil to Holmes, unafraid to speak truth to craziness. They complete each other, like Felix and Oscar. (There is a “Do you think I’m gay? I’m not gay, but it’s OK if you are” conversation — something of a trope these days, but well done.)
Holmes and Watson call each other John and Sherlock here, and the game is “on” now, rather than “afoot.” They have been fitted with smart phones and laptops; Holmes has a website, Watson blogs. The pipe (and the cocaine) has been replaced by an abundance of nicotine patches. But the soup in which they swim would be familiar to their Victorian models — terrorism, globalism, new technologies, the incorporation of crime.
As directed by Paul McGuigan (“The Acid House”) and Euros Lyn, another “Who” alumnus, “Sherlock” is stylized almost to a fault, busy with clever dissolves and wipes and superimposed texts. It is cinematic in the sense that nothing in it looks quite real. But it works: This is not the London known as jolly and old, but the new chilly city of glass, a place of missed connections, of aliens and alienation. And the smart dialogue and warm performances — even Holmes has a discernible beating heart, or perhaps two — keep ice from forming on the production.