Sherlock vs. Downton Abbey

While everyone else has been engrossed in Downton Abbey, a new version of Upstairs, Downstairs, I've been absorbed with the 21st century reinvention of Sherlock Holmes as Sherlock, easily one of the most fun, well-written series in a decade.

I watched season one of Downton Abbey because of Maggie Smith, always a joy, and cast here as the formidable Dowager Countess trying to ensure that her granddaughter marry a "suitable" husband. I loved Smith and enjoyed the series, but not enough to return.

My reluctance comes from a suspicion of soap operas, that strange hybrid that is neither drama nor opera. I want things to build, explode and resolve in one episode, rather than have to return week after week to discover what Annie, Fanny and Manny were up to since I last saw them. If I want long, drawn-out sagas, I simply ask my friends what's been going on in their love lives and drink tea while pretending to listen.

Sherlock was created by writer/producer Steven Moffat, and writer/actor Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock's troublesome brother, Mycroft. The pair worked together on the revised Doctor Who series. (Nothing like the old one. If you haven't seen the recent version with Matt Smith--a comic genius--don’t write it off.)

The BBC has long been known for pairing actors, especially in comedic roles. Think ofJennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in Absolutely Fabulous, Aidan Gillen and Craig Kelly in Queer As Folk (before it got turned into a soap opera-with-an-agenda in the US version), David Walliams and Matt Lucas in Little Britain. And now here are Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Sherlock and his sidekick John Watson. The pairing doesn't get much better, either as actors or characters.

While reinventing nearly everything wholesale, it's to the producers' credit that they've remained charmingly true to Conan Doyle's books, beginning with A Study In Pink, a sly retelling of Holmes's first case, A Study In Scarlet. The result is a delirious rewriting of the original stories, as when The Hound of the Baskervilles comes back as The Hounds of Baskerville, an experiment in genetic modification and then some.

For serious fun, this is as good as it gets. Here is Holmes in A Scandal in Belgravia, going off to Buckingham Palace draped in a bed sheet, as angry and imperious as a queen at being forced to do something he doesn't want to do. Elsewhere, he informs two young girls asking him to investigate their grandfather's disappearance that, contrary to what their parents may have said, "People don’t go to Heaven; they’re put in a special box and burned," while John Watson looks on, appalled by his friend's social ineptness.

Of course, it's the twenty-first century, so no one believes two men living together are not gay. And who is to say they’re not? The oddball pairing of Holmes with Watson in the 19th century may simply have been a case of arrested sexual development. Here, the gay subtext, which is more often ubertext, gets some of the best play in the series, as the two are constantly mistaken for a couple. In fact they are a couple, whatever may or may not go on after the lights go out. In any case, the love between the two men is palpable, if unspoken, from show one.

(Initially, A Study in Pink was shot as a one-off rather than a series pilot, but was later re-made. While it's been decried in some quarters as being low budget, it's still quite good. In fact, the original ending is far more moving than in the remake, with Watson standing pensively in the shadows after having rescued his new friend, Sherlock.)

As with the Hardys, Frank and Joe, and my Fairfax series, featuring Brad and his blue-haired amour Zachary, the series really is about the pairing of the two men. The crime and the criminals come second. But make no mistake, these crimes and their solutions are dead clever. They have to be, for that is the essence of Sherlock Holmes.

Still, it's the interplay of Holmes, all reason, and Watson, the long-suffering that makes everything work. The pairing propels us along with them, envious and yearning to share in their adventures for real, while wishing we had friends as true as these. That’s the secret of Sherlock.

Jeffrey Round is a Toronto writer and filmmaker. His most recent book is the mystery-thriller Lake On The Mountain, from Dundurn Books. Visit: www.jeffreyround.com.

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