It was, and probably still is, one of the best modern TV reboots ever produced. While it’s not based on an existing series, it rightfully earned acclaim for bringing a classic character properly into the 21st century. It starts with the gunfire of Afghanistan and cements itself with its elegant depiction of texting — a promise that what lies ahead will be unconventional, ingenious, and modern.
Though its seemingly final season in 2017 is a far cry from its early days, its first three seasons aren’t just binge-worthy — they’re binge-mandatory. And that is why this BBC hit is the precise rebooted TV show you need to stream on Netflix right now — before it leaves on May 14.
Sherlock, which famously stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic detective and Martin Freeman as John Watson (reimagined here as an RAMC veteran fresh from service in Afghanistan), takes place in modern-day London. While Sherlock’s abrasive personality causes conflict between him, Watson, and the Metropolitan Police Service, Sherlock’s unmatched intellect, deduction, and observation make him an invaluable resource in solving crimes. In an appropriate update on Watson’s role as Sherlock’s “biographer” in Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, Watson blogs about their cases, which goes viral and turns Sherlock into a reluctant celebrity.
The brainchild of Doctor Who writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, the two conceived the idea of Sherlock operating in the 21st century over commutes to the Doctor Who set in Cardiff. But it wasn’t until producer Sue Vertue, Moffat’s wife, talked Moffat and Gatiss into actually making it, warning them other writers may steal the novel idea before them.
In a 2010 interview with The Guardian during the show’s launch, Gatiss lamented that recent Sherlock adaptations were “too reverential and too slow,” almost all of them Victorian period pieces. Such an example was the 2009 Hollywood movie Sherlock Holmes, with the title role played by actor Robert Downey Jr. (Both Cumberbatch and Downey would later share the screen together in 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.) “We are being precisely as reverential as Conan Doyle was," Gatiss quipped. "And Sherlock Holmes is already the most filmed character in all fiction, so there will always be more versions if you don't like ours."
In true British TV fashion, the series is less than 15 episodes in all, each clocking in at a feature film’s length. And while the last season and 2016 special received mixed reviews, there is still power in that first batch of episodes. Smart filmmaking and a killer score by David Arnold and Michael Price (“The Game Is On” is so good it should be Sherlock Holmes’ theme across all media for the rest of time) enhance the series’ pair of charismatic, electric leads. Cumberbatch and Freeman anchor Sherlock, even through some stylistic stumbles. Watch those scenes of Sherlock’s deductive “powers” at work and try not to giggle.
Though some of its episodes are now over ten years old, they remain as fresh as ever. Its elegant depiction of texting — plain, simple white text on screen — is perhaps what keeps the series from ever feeling or looking dated now. While Japanese anime and South Korean cinema have included cell phone texts onscreen since the early 2000s, Sherlock popularized the form in the 2010s for mainstream audiences as a solution over conventional insert shots of phones. Comparatively more complicated, clunky, and time-consuming to accomplish, Sherlock borrowed an idea from South Korea, refined it, and now it’s everywhere.
Tony Zhou, the film editor behind the film studies YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, credited Sherlock in 2014 for its “definitive” and obsolescence-proof method. By maintaining the same font through every season and blanketing the text in white regardless of sender and receiver, Zhou notes that audience investment is increased. In short, it’s good filmmaking.
Elsewhere, Cumberbatch’s lauded portrayal as Sherlock Holmes still has teeth. This was the role that shot Cumberbatch to fame and served as his unofficial audition for the similarly calculated Doctor Strange. Meanwhile, the equally skilled Freeman, as a put-upon John Watson, never fails in that delicate balance of being way out of his depth and being the very source of gravity to pull in Sherlock and his dangerous antisocial tendencies.
While Arthur Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock has long been a, shall we say, abrasive personality, the full extent of Sherlock’s sociopathy is fiercely debated. In the series, Sherlock himself jokes, “I'm not a psychopath, I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research.” This line has become uncomfortably celebrated by fans of the series; you can buy printed mugs with the quote on Etsy. But is Sherlock — who often demonstrates a lack of empathy, politeness, guilt or even remorse — actually a sociopath?
In 2016, Insider asked James Fallon, a neuroscientist at the UC Irvine School of Medicine, who in turn asked Dr. Michael Felong (a specialist of internal medicine in Temecula, California and a self-professed fan of Sherlock). Insider found that Doyle’s version of Sherlock is a “primary psychopath,” but Cumberbatch’s was a bit different — and exactly who he claimed to be.
“A primary psychopath usually gets his or her defining characteristics as a result of a combination of genes, brain connections, and environment,” Insider quotes Fallon. “This type of person doesn't typically respond to punishment, fear, stress, or disapproval, and often lacks empathy. Most primary psychopaths ... mimic emotions and understand them cognitively, but do not feel them.”
That’s almost Moffat and Gatniss’ Sherlock, as played by Cumberbatch. Taking Sherlock at his word (which, while difficult, is never risky), Sherlock is indeed a high-functioning sociopath. As Insider describes, sociopaths “can feel stress or guilt” and are “capable of empathy.” Because empathy is interesting and humanizing for TV characters, that’s how Sherlock behaves. Plus a huge dash of charisma that makes everyone hate to love him.
Even if its later seasons are unremarkable, Sherlock is never uninteresting. With a premise so deceptively simple it feels like a glitch in the matrix why it hasn’t been done already many times, Sherlock is the best example of bringing old-timey fiction to a sleek and sexy present. Come, the game is on.
Sherlock is streaming now on Netflix until May 14.