Is tonight's new PBS 'Sherlock' one of the best Sherlock Holmes ever?

This week’s Masterpiece Mystery! begins a three-week run of Sherlock, a clever re-imagining of Sherlock Holmes in the 21st century. One thing that marks this production off from previous adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s work — that is, aside from the fact that this Sherlock has a website and texts furiously — is that it forces the Holmes cult to overlap with another venerable British cult: the one for Doctor Who.

Benedict Cumberbatch, from Atonement, stars as a jittery Holmes who’s more addicted to e-mail and his nicotine patch than to the traditional snoot-full of cocaine. His Watson is an Afghanistan war veteran played by Martin Freeman, who just this week was announced as joining the cast of (make that a third British-cult link!) The Hobbit movie.

The first installment of Sherlock, “A Study in Pink,” is — elementary, my dear readers — a variation on the first Holmes tale, A Study in Scarlet. Co-written by Steven Moffat, producer and head writer for Doctor Who, “A Study in Pink” manages to work in all of Holmes’ signature traits without doing too much straining to render Holmes a contemporary figure. Cumberbatch’s Holmes is, like most of the Holmeses in TV and movies, an imperious fellow who sizes up people quickly, makes deductions with lightning-fast accuracy, and has a Moriarty arch-enemy. (Watson maintains a blog on which he records details of their cases, but it’s also an electronic journal he uses as therapy for his post-traumatic stress.)

The new Holmes is thoroughly up-to-speed with the way Doyle’s character might be diagnosed these days, as when he remarks this evening, “I’m not a psychopath, I’m a high-functioning sociopath.”

One question that springs immediately to mind: How will the new Holmes stack up against the greats of the past? I’m thinking, of course, of Basil Rathbone’s languidly neurasthenic Holmes:

Or of Jeremy Brett’s much beloved, snippy, chilly, but ultimately endearing Holmes:

Or of any of the other Sherlocks you may like, in vehicles ranging from Barry Levinson’s 1985 Young Sherlock Holmes to Billy Wilder’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes to last year’s turbo-charged Robert Downey, Jr., edition.

No matter how you’re feeling about the way public broadcasting has dealt with the Juan Williams imbroglio, I urge you to give tonight’s Sherlock a shot, and tell me what you think.

And do tell me: who do you think is the best Holmes ever? Brett? Rathbone? Someone else?

Follow: @kentucker

Comments (430 total) Add your comment
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  • ShotgunShogun

    Not sure if he is the best Holmes ever or not. What I will say that this three part first series is entertaining to the extreme. The deductions come with such lightning quick speed that it seems miraculous, and yet on repeated viewings seems completely obvious. Holmes and Watson share a great chemistry and are perfectly cast. Please give this series a view!

    • jjfron

      Cumberbatch is by far the best. Incredible charismatic performance

      • C.Ryan

        Being a huge Sherlock fan for 50 years, am surprised to say I’m thrilled with this new MM version. I was elated to ‘stumble’ onto it last night have heard nothing about it before. Am confident Sir Doyle would approve of this updated version. Jeremy Brett was, and maybe still is, my favorite Holmes. One episode tells me that Cumberbatch & Freeman will, and should, go far as Holmes & Watson. Everything there for a perfect bromance. Am so very glad this production did not ‘dumb down’ Watson. That is never what I perceived from the books. Only three episodes?? I think I shall be begging for more!!

      • C.Ryan

        To those of you who contributed to over 50 inches of this column to comment on BBC, BBCA, PBS, and NPR… SHAME ON YOU! SHAME ON YOU!

    • dobby

      So silly of the BBC to hand this over to PBS. noone will be watching. Why isnt it on BBC america at least

      • fish eye no miko

        “So silly of the BBC to hand this over to PBS.”

        If you watch the end credits (at lest of tbe BBC version), you’ll see it’s co-produced by the people at “Masterpiece”. So it’s a foregone conclusion that it would be airing on PBS when it was brought to the U.S.

      • wendy

        Its more relevant to say its a shame the BBC took some money from PBS so they could pretend they were involved in its production. Once the BBC took that money they must have known hardly anyone in the states would see it. They should have looked to another company to support the project

      • iggy

        That’s a very presumptuous comment. Just because you may not watch public television does not mean nobody else does. Masterpiece does many, many worthwhile productions and has many loyal viewers (myself included).

      • Bren

        I love PBS. And unlike cable, which may or may not offer BBCA, PBS is available in most places.

      • greg

        Thank god it’s not on BBCA, which isn’t part of my basic cable package. Thanks to PBS, it’s available to people who don’t want to spring for the premium channels.

      • discriminawhig

        If BBC hadn’t gone with Masterpiece to produce it, it would not be on PBS or, probably, US TV at all. PBS is preferable because, as you may know, there are no commercials. Not unlike the original BBC itself (as opposed to BBCA), in fact.
        If there was a reason to watch PBS, it would be that. Fortunately we also have strong drama such as this… which is uncommon enough this side of the pond.

      • Love it

        IT was great and for once PBS has real value to me. its in HD where BBC America is not yet HD on my FIOS..

      • Amanda

        Because not all of us have acess silly person. Would love to have bbc America but don’t. I will take it any form I can get it.

      • Anei

        Not only is PBS more widely available, it airs this series uncut, commercial free. I’ve been appalled at how BBCA has edited down episodes of Doctor Who, cutting critical scenes and leaving some of that series’s best episodes barely recognizable. I’d have been mortified if the entire US had been introduced to “Sherlock” in the same format: outrageously butchered by editors making room for extra long commercial breaks.

      • ALM

        Some of us actually WATCH PBS, Dobby-you-twit. Sunday night, hmmm…Desperate Housewives or Masterpiece Theatre…really no contest, is there? BBC America is too chock-full of Gordon Ramsay and house-improvement shows. You get a better selection of Brit shows from Netflix, PBS, and the food channels than you do on BBCA.

      • T

        It is going to be on BBCA. They announced it awhile back. And it has already aired in the UK because I already watched the whole series online.

      • John B

        OMG I get it…
        You hit the nail on the head.
        Democtrat party leaders treat African Americans like they’ve been bought and paid for, and no unauthorized thoughts are allowed.
        Remember several years back when a black Republican congressman was not allowed to join the Congressional Black Cacus? The party wanbts to keep African-Americans dependant and subserviant.

      • SirLizard

        More people in this country have access to PBS than to BBC America.

      • maggie

        If PBS hadn’t come up with money towards the production, Sherlock would never have been made. PBS also is available everywhere, but BBCA is not.

        dobby, you need to watch PBS more and you’ll see that it has great programs and no commercials.

      • fish eye no miko

        Anei: “it airs the serries uncut”

        Actually, they made edits fro time. Including taking out a few pretty funny lines.
        “Anderson, don’t talk out loud, you lower the IQ of the entire street.”

    • sasha

      I loved Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes. He gives the most charismatic performance in the role. When he’s on screen you arent interested in anyone else. I like the fact that they have a young, rather sexy Holmes. Suits me fine.

    • rec

      Benedict Cumberbatch was awesome. Love him

    • Bob

      I thought it was fantastic. Holmes and Watson were played perfectly, and I loved the quick dialouge and pacing. Moffat did a great job with this. Also, thanks for not having commercials!

      • AmyB

        Watson’s reinvention is the best part of the show. The charater is written with a perfect balance of intrigue and bewilderment at Holmes but also with competents, not a bumbling fool as is so often protrayed.

      • Meb

        FYI, they didn’t ‘reinvent’ Watson for this show, Granada did so nearly thirty years ago with David Burke as Brett’s first Watson and continued with the excellent Edward Hardwicke.
        Stupid Watson was Rathbone’s Watson and a few others.
        As for Holmes:
        BC is good, but JB is King.

    • kate

      What I’ve seen of this series was well worth the time investment. As much as i love robert downey junior, Guy Ritchie managed to totally screw up the latest film version of Sherlock Holmes, so it was nice to see this the writing on this version be so completely outstanding. But I’ve come to expect little else from Steven Moffat. It’s definately not a series for people not willing to pay attention, but that’s what I liked about it.

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  • Jeff

    NPR not PBS. Just saying . . .

    • Desmo

      Both of which are under the corporation for public broadcasting.

      • Desmo

        Just saying…

      • Ephemera

        Corporation for Public Broadcasting is just a funding source, it does not manage either network, and the two networks are completely independent of one another. You should check your facts before posting. Just saying …

      • Desmo

        Umm my facts are completely accurate so I don’t know what your talking about. PBS and NPR are both a part of the Corporation For Public Broadcasting.

      • kronos

        The difference between CPB, PBS, and NPR:

    • CC

      Not that I want anybody taking their misguided anger out on PBS, but NPR and PBS are one in the same. In many cities they are often run by the same executives at the top.

      • Rent Too Damn High Party

        Misguided anger? You call the firing of their soul black personality due to the color of his skin misguided?

      • CC

        You kind of just proved my point, though this is a new one I had yet to hear. They did not fire him due to the color of his skin. Nor did they fire him for appearing on Fox News, though they clearly weren’t thrilled with his decision to appear either. He made incendiary and unprofessional remarks and he paid the consequences like anyone else would.

      • Rent Too Damn High Party

        Right, they got people saying incendiary and unprofessional remarks about hoping people get AIDs, but the second a black man says anything outta line we got fire him quick. Don’t tell me that isn’t about race.

      • Ephemera

        This post is incorrect. NPR and PBS are completely independent of one another. A few of their affiliated stations are connected, but most are not — and the affiliated stations are independent of the network, the same way most commercial TV stations are independent of the networks whose programs they carry. Check your facts before you post.

      • Don’t Use Other Folk’s Monickers Party

        The firing of Williams was unjust but it wasn’t about race and it wouldn’t be about race even if you were capable of making a rational argument. Tell me, just who at NPR ever said anything about hoping people get AIDS?

      • Rent Too Damn High Party

        Nina Totenburg you ignorant racist. This WHITE woman makes a completely unprofessional and irresponsible comment and she still has a job. Same thing happens with a BLACK man and he gets fired. Racism in its finest.

      • CC

        Ephemera, I’ve actually worked for both NPR and PBS and I’ve done my research on how the stations work. I think I understand the connections between the two just fine, thanks.
        As for RTDHP, well I wondered when the name-calling would start. Since thats the way you played it I’m out. I’d just recommend you do more thinking and more research before you come to this conclusion. Besides, I wanna go watch Sherlock Holmes.

      • Rent Too Damn High Party

        Hey I wasn’t hassling you CC. And I was just responding in kind to What Ever The Fock I Use To Make Fun Of This Guy

      • Clancy

        Didn’t that thing with Totenberg happen like 15 years ago? People must be pretty desperate to tar NPR if they’re going back that far.

      • Alex

        Strange paradox when one cite racism over someone being fired for racist comments.

        As for NPR/PBS… is he still going to be on “News Hour”?

      • Wise Up

        Alex Mr Williams did not make racist comments. Unless you are so stupid to think Muslim is a race. BTW he said the same thing Jessie Jackson once said about his own discomfort with black youth on the street. So Jessie is a racists ? They are both people with an emotional reaction they were honest enough to share when trying to help people overcome emotions and not be prejudice.
        BTW.. Other non black commentators and reporters have said outrageous things and been on fox so by a process of deduction we come to one main difference. Blacks who are friendly with Conservatives piss off liberals who have expectations for all the “help” the give

      • OMG I get it

        I think you nailed it. I have seen Democrats say nasty things about Republican blacks. I always wanted to think it was the politics not the race. But I have read Juan Williams and he is a liberal and a Democrat. But he wasn’t deferential to the white liberal establishment and its demands. What you just said makes sense. these people assume blacks are bought and paid for with political favors and are suppose to stay on the property at all times.. Now all that talk about Barack and his “talking white” by Reid and Biden makes sense.. in an benevolent owner kind of way

      • Wise Up

        OMG: I think “owning” pretty strong wording.. but I expectations of total loyalty yes..

      • anne

        Please re-read your comments before you post for grammar, punctuation and spelling. They’ll have more impact…..

  • Tara

    I definitely think he is my favorite Holmes, though he may be tied with Jeremy Brett who was also wonderful in the role. Either way, Martin Freeman is certainly the best Watson (for me, at least). I hope you all watch this brilliant series!!!

    • Kvivik

      Jeremy Brett will always be the best Holmes in my opinion. I’m hoping that Martin Freeman is a better Watson than any of the others (ie I hope the writers don’t make him dumb as a post).
      Looking forward to seeing this.

      • Znachki

        This Watson is marvelous – IMO it’s the first time you don’t wonder why Holmes keeps hanging out with him.

      • Anei

        I couldn’t agree more, Znachki: Martin Freeman’s Watson is simply wonderful. Not that every past Watson has been atrocious, but I’ve never seen another actor nail the real essence of Watson so perfectly, nor have I seen another Holmes and Watson pairing where we could so plainly understand why these two keep company: why Holmes likes having Watson around, and why Watson chooses to keep following along and joining in the adventures of his mad, eccentric, genius of a flatmate. Kudos to Mr. Freeman!

    • brandy

      I adored Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes. the best ever.

    • pauleee

      Actor playign Watson called Martin Freeman was very wooden. I liked the guy playing Holmes.

      • Ellen

        I believe he was meant to be “wooden,” just as he was meant to be able to walk without his cane. He was barely functioning after his time spent in Afghanistan, and needed something to intellectually bring him back to life. We can see by the end of the episode that his new association with Sherlock is going to help him. He leaned heavily on his cane at the beginning of the show, but by the end he was able to run.

        I thought all the acting was terrific.

    • spooks

      Cumberbatch breathed new life into the character. Brett’s version was always OTT. Cumeberbatch is classier and the performance has more depth.

      • Meb

        Nonsense. Brett was not “always” OTT – whatever that means. As for “classier”, oh, please. JB had class running right through him like a stick of posh rock.
        Why the need to trash Brett to praise Cumberbatch? Both are good in their own way.

  • T

    I have seen the series already and I have to say that it is pretty good. I don’t think I am enough of a Sherlock Holmes fan to say it’s the best. But I really did enjoy it a lot.

    • caro

      Cumberbatch gave an amazing performance as Sherlock. The series is well worth watching.

    • wendy

      Its a great series. Cleverly done and very cinematic. The director of episode 1 and 3 needs a pat on the back

    • Rob

      I’ve seen it too. I thought it was great.

    • orely

      Freeman was terrible as watson. Dull as ditchwater. Cumberbatch was astonishingly good.

  • rebecca

    I have already seen this series but I am watching it again on PBS because it is so amazing!!! I love RDJ as Holmes and I also love Cumberbatch as Holmes. Not really sure which one is the best though because they are both amazing!! I can’t wait until tonight!!! So excited!!

    • lester

      RDJ was a joke. such a terrible accent.

      • sasha

        I enjoyed the film version but its pure hokum. You cant take RDJ seriously and I dont think we are meant to. Cumberbatch’s interpretation on the other hand is a work of art. A performance to savour.

    • dobby

      Downey Jr gave a terrible performance

      • survelia

        Benedict Cumberbatch impressed me greatly. World class performance.

    • Kvivik

      RDJ was the wrong actor in a stellar interpretation of Holmes. I really liked the movie, but I kept imagining Pierce Brosnan and Sean Bean as Holmes and Watson (ages be damned).

    • Skye

      You don’t have to choose. EW is just fan war baiting. Also, I enjoyed both RDJ and Cumberbatch as Holmes, also.

  • Jennie

    Looking forward to the show.
    Interesting that Beck, Hannity, O’Reilly have said even more offensive things, as in out and out hate and lies, and they’re still on Fox.

    • emmy

      …which is the difference between NPR and FOX. Williams will now be working solely for FOX, where, I’m sure, he’ll feel more at home.

  • sam

    For me, Martin Freeman puts on one of my favorite Watson performances, and Benedict Cumberbatch is riveting as well. V. sharp all around!

    • lester

      Freeman is as wooden as they come. Watch him try and shout in the first episode. Freeman was appalling.Also his delivery at the end of the episode was bad too.

      • griff

        I wasnt impressed by Martin Freeman as Watson. Over rated as an actor.

      • wendy

        If you mean the damn my leg line in the first episode then yes that was very unconvincing. Perhaps Martin isnt good at angry scenes.

      • Skye

        You say “wooden” and I say subtle and endearing. His performance was more understated than I was used to. I intially wasn’t bowled over by Freeman’s portrayal but on rewatch I found I enjoyed it a lot more. I guess you can say he grew on me. :)

      • Anei

        I’m with Skye: “wooden” and “subtle” are _not_ the same thing. Mr. Freeman is the latter, and I thought his performance utterly wonderful. There are quite a few moments throughout the three episodes where both is subtlety and expressiveness in very difficult scenes simply blew me away. (Wait ’til you get to the end of “The Greatest Game”: Freeman has an amazing and dramatic scene where I’d challenge anyone with an ounce of sense to call his performance wooden.) The man is brilliant in the role.

  • Skye

    What is with this headline? Are you trying to whip up some fandom war, EW? Don’t fall for it, folks. Anyways, Sherlock is a great modern take that is highly entertaining and gets even better on rewatch.

    • fish eye no miko

      Not to mention bringing up the Juan Williams thing. Are you *trying* to pick a fight, Mr. Tucker? If so, why? Sheesh, just write about the new show and keep other topics out of it…

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    • Gina

      It seems everything is a competition. Actors in the same show even get put up against one another by fans these days. It’s absolutely unnecessary and tacky, but it’s something done so casually. So, the media “logically” compares this series to all other adaptations almost immediately. Quite risky to do so after one episode, too.

  • sia

    Cumberbatch is an incredible actor. World class. His performance in this series is the best Holmes Ive ever seen.

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  • helen

    I adored Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of Sherlock Holmes. Far more complex a performance than the others that have gone before. Brett for instance was such a hammy actor.

  • Jenny

    Absolutly love Sherlock and think Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brilliant Holmes!However Jeremy Brett is, in my opinion, the ultimate Sherlock Holmes.

  • lori

    Ive becoem a huge fan of Benedict Cumberbatch since watchign all 3 episodes. I’m sad that there was only 3 made this year. Even next year we only get 3 more and as 1 of those is focused on Hound of the Baskevilles we’ll see more Watson than Holmes whcih is a disappointment. I;d love to see Cumberbatch in a huge big screen version of Holmes.

    • anne

      Hear! Hear! He’d be even greater on the big screen!! :-)

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  • Britt

    I interested to see Holmes, but I’m always more focused on Watson. Watson doesn’t get a fair representation in some of the versions (specifically the Rathbone version)

    • griff

      Watson’s midn numbignly boring as a character and is in this version too.

      • Britt

        Watson’s representation and adaptation as a character is separate from whether or not you find the character interesting.

    • wendy

      I find in any production of Sherlock Holmes I’m tapping my feet waiting till they get back to the charismatic Holmes. Whoever plays the role. Watson serves his purpuse but rivetting TV he does not make

    • Septiana

      Although I found the tniirty system interesting, I am not sad to here that the old resource system will be used.After thinking a bit I had, as you had, some doubts that it really ADDS to the game and isn’t just more resources for the sake of more resources

  • ruthp

    I was in awe of Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance. Best acting Ive seen on TV in years.

  • pereli

    Cumberbatch makes this series. Electric performance and its a shame we have to wait so long for more episodes. The BBC slipped up there.

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