Of all the immensely popular fictional characters we've met over the past century, Sherlock Holmes must be the most opaque. For a man with a Q score that would be the envy of any movie star, we know less about him than we do about, say, Katy Perry (which is probably just as well, really.) We don't know his birthday. We know almost nothing of his family and childhood, save a distant and equally genius brother. His personal life, if he even had one, went virtually unmentioned in the four novels and 56 short stories that made up the original adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as written by his creator Arthur Conan Doyle. By contrast, the character of James Bond -- almost as popular and well-known as Holmes -- is practically a tabloid starlet. That guy kept his pathos -- dead parents, early heartbreak leading to life-long misogyny -- written across his Walther PPK.
So one of the many wonderful additions to the canon of Holmes material made by the new British series Sherlock, which premiered in the US last night on PBS, is the creation of an inner life for Sherlock Holmes. He is given something like a proper back-story. He gets the same brother that Conan Doyle gave him, but now he gets parents and a bit of a family life as well. He's even given a psychiatric diagnosis. The results, needless to say, are not pretty.
The creators of Sherlock extrapolate from the solitary, brooding detective we find in the Conan Doyle stories and take Holmes to his logical conclusion. He doesn't like people much, but still spends his days avenging their deaths? He refuses to work for the police department, and yet crime is his passion? He is monumentally arrogant, abrasive, difficult, frequently unpleasant, and yet he really wants a young army doctor -- one John Watson, MD -- to become his roommate? "I'm not a psychopath, Anderson," Holmes corrects another character in the first episode. "I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research."
The writers of Sherlock have certainly done theirs. They've taken pieces from the original stories and cleverly updated them to the modern day. A plot point that once hinged on a pocketwatch now rests on a cell phone. Instead of taking ads in the daily paper, Holmes sends text messages. (Though from the amount of texting he does in this episode, I really hope he got the Unlimited Plan. Those surcharges will be murder on a guy without a discernible source of income.) In a modernizing twist that seems truly unnerving, Watson's return from the war in Afghanistan in the original stories is here updated to... the war in Afghanistan. Whether this is a profound statement about the inexorable march of empire or just a trippy coincidence is anyone's guess.
And yet it's the psychological complexity, even more than the dry wit, that makes Sherlock such a terrific exploration of what could otherwise be well-worn material. I've written a book about Arthur Conan Doyle. I've read all of the Holmes stories God-knows-how-many times. I'm aware of whodunit, so to speak. But Sherlock managed to surprise at every turn. The darkness in this take on the characters is a thrill. If Holmes is a sociopath with a drug problem and suicidal tendencies, the Watson we find here is an adrenaline junkie with a death wish who doesn't feel calm unless he's shooting at someone. He's practically a character out of The Hurt Locker. Martin Freeman, from the British version of The Office and that really cute porn subplot in Love Actually, gives him a naturally sweet charm, but does not blink at the idea that this Watson is a pretty screwed-up guy. He and Holmes need each other, if only because no one else will have them. They're both guys who like to stay close to death because maybe, just maybe, today will be the day that they get to kill somebody. Or die themselves. Which they would each prefer is left hauntingly ambiguous. This Watson goes for his gun quicker than Jack Bauer in a roomful of terrorists.
There are a lot of detective shows on television, and all of them owe a debt to Sherlock Holmes. The socially maladjusted detective, the bantering partners, the curious charm of a guy who knows he's smarter than anyone else in the room -- USA must have eight shows in development right now with all these elements, to add to the 15 or so I think they already have on the air. So it's nice to see the original back in action, outshining his imitators. Let's hope that Sherlock continues, and we get to find out still more about the guy. I want to know at least as much about the consulting detective as I do about the busty pop star -- though if I have to see photos from his Indian wedding to Russell Brand, I'm out.
Graham Moore's novel The Sherlockian will be published in December.