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Sherlock: TV Worth Reading

Posted: 03/14/2012 1:08 pm

Whenever I get it in my head to write fiction, I find myself thinking of modernizing an old story. I minored in Classics at school, and even that didn't dilute my love of Greek mythology and drama, so I'll wind up jotting notes for a version of "Medea" set in a modern corporation or something equally ridiculous and untenable.

But I'm drawn to the idea because I think, when it's done well, that converting an old story into a modern context proves something about its timelessness. It says, "See? This is still true. This is still relevant!"

But despite Hollywood's love of a reboot, it's not an easy thing to pull off. "O Brother Where Art Thou" was a great take on "The Odyssey" that didn't need the audience to know the source material to work. And more recently, some critics have noted that "Homeland" made use of the Cassandra myth. (Cassandra was a Trojan princess condemned by Apollo to know the future and be able to tell people about it, but to never be believed.) If Carrie is Cassandra, they say, maybe Brody is Apollo. I think, in this analogy, he's more like the Trojan Horse, but it works for me. I like this idea -- it deepens the narrative without getting in the way of the modern-day story.

BBC's "Sherlock," the latest take on Arthur Conan Doyle's detective (who has been portrayed onscreen more than 70 different ways), does this beautifully. I've just discovered the show, but most of my TV watching friends haven't heard of it. If you, like them, haven't caught on to this series yet, go do it. You might be able to get it on demand, and the first season is on Netflix.

The structure of the show is a bit odd, at first. Instead of a handful of hour-long episodes, each series consists of three 90-minute mini-movies based on Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. I've watched five so far, and I'm in that delicious period where I'm dying to watch the last one, but also want to save it. Knowing I've got more than a piddly 44 minutes coming my way makes it bearable.

Set in modern-day London, the newest Sherlock has access to forensic labs, nicotine patches, and smartphones, but he is, in every way that counts, utterly faithful to the literary original. Forget Robert Downey Jr. -- this one is played by Benedict Cumberbatch, a Brit (obviously with that handle) who bears a passing resemblance to the young Dennis Quaid, and clearly has no qualms about chewing the scenery. His Dr. Watson is played by Martin Freeman (from the original "Office" and the underrated "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy") as I imagine Bill Bryson might. In other words, he is happily amazed by most things, occasionally cranky, and always soothed by a nice cup of tea.

The thing I'm most enjoying about indulging in the show is how light-hearted it is. All the really good TV right now is so dark. I'm as excited as the next guy about the return of "Game of Thrones" this April, but it's nice to watch something that doesn't involve people being crippled, beheaded and thrown into dungeons. "Sherlock" is delightfully fun. It's obvious, in the execution and from the fan reaction, that this show is being made by people who adored the source material. (One of the creators also plays Sherlock's brother Mycroft, a character whose fictional other life I've been following avidly in the "Thursday Next" novels by Jasper Fforde. Check those out too, while you're at it.)

It may not be a retelling of "The Iliad," but "Sherlock" does what I always want to do when I write -- revive an old story and prove that the props -- in this case, opium, magnifying glasses and galoshes -- were merely that. Of course, if I'd ever read the Holmes stories, I'd have known that he's never been out of the limelight.

Thanks to the show, I finally understand the subtext of the Lady Heather episodes of "CSI" (I can't believe those haven't been released as a special set yet, a la "Sex and the City"). Gil Grissom, like Gregory House, owes a great deal to the character of Sherlock Holmes, but I never realized that the intelligent dominatrix who seems to beguile Grissom had her roots in Conan Doyle's Irene Adler. The odd-couple relationship between Sherlock and Watson also leads me to believe Conan Doyle may also have invented the buddy comedy.

The really wonderful thing about falling in love with this show, despite the scarcity of episodes, is that when I'm done watching, I can read them, too. Holmes appears in more than 60 different Conan Doyle stories. Good thing I have a library card.