'Sherlock' season premiere review: Was 'A Scandal in Belgravia' a Holmes romp, or a sexist rout?

Sherlock returned for a second season Sunday night on PBS’ Masterpiece Mystery!, and offered its take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia” by giving you a chance to match wits with the Master in… cracking the password to Irene Adler’s smartphone.

The first installment of a scant three-episode season commenced with “A Scandal in Belgravia,” which quickly dispatched with last season’s swimming pool cliffhanger to get on with an adaptation of the first Holmes short story and one of the few in which the Great Detective is out-smarted by someone else. Irene Adler, played by Lara Pulver, a seductive woman who plots to blackmail the royal family, is referred to in Conan Doyle’s story and in the Steven Moffat/Mark Gatiss adaptation as “the woman,” intended as a phrase of admiration for her intelligence and crafty allure. The TV version emphasized this by making Adler a clever-tongued dominatrix who aroused the hetero-man in Holmes (his first glimpse of her was in the buff — Irene, not Sherlock) even as she stimulated his deductive powers. (And, perhaps, initially confounded them: Holmes, who draws so many instant conclusions about people via their clothes, could not form too many opinions about a nekkid Irene Adler beyond, “Hubba-hubba, pip-pip!”)

The episode included a lot of amusing back-and-forth between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes and Martin Freeman’s perpetually nettled blogger Watson, and a few Holmes-canon touches that were inserted with the proper amount of cheekiness, such as Cumberbatch’s donning of a deerstalker cap to avoid the intrusiveness of the media’s cameras. The adaptation retained photographic images as the blackmail material (one British blogger sagely guessed that these might have been pix of “Kate Middleton in a ball gag”) while cleverly transferring the medium for those images to Irene’s “camera phone.” (I’m afraid all British people talking about technology is now always going to remind me of the joke in the second episode of HBO’s Girls in which it’s said that Jessa refuses to use the word “text” but rather refers to them as “word-alerts.”)

This was also the first Sherlock in which a woman was as much of an intellectual partner to Holmes… or was she? For all her brainy swagger, Irene was ultimately (SPOILER ALERT!) revealed to be in league with Moriarty (I chuckled at the notion that he described Holmes to her as “the virgin”). Did this undercut the power Irene held over the mystery? In the short story, Irene is, for Conan Doyle at least, a rather complex character, one capable of original (non-Moriarty-associated) villainy. Does that make the Conan Doyle-Irene more imbued with agency, as some of us say, than the Moffat-Irene? Is the more intense sexualization of TV-Irene more sexist or a matter of the new Irene owning her sexuality?

The literary Irene may be “the woman” to Holmes, a most formidable foe even as she made her escape via marriage. The TV Irene is initially thought to have been beheaded, only to be (SPOLIER ALERT!) rescued by Holmes as executioner. In effect, Irene, for all her resourcefulness, is literally brought to her knees by Holmes. I’d be interested to hear what you think about Irene as an antagonist/worthy adversary/female dupe for Holmes’s glory.

Meanwhile, I deem this season premiere a satisfying success, with a gratifyingly substantial role for Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes. What did you think?

Twitter: @kentucker

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