There's a dirty little secret about TV cop dramas that I will let you in on right now. Most every one that you're watching is working overtime to rip off one classic character:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's deductive genius Sherlock Holmes.
But somehow, Bobby Goren's tortured psychological struggles and Patrick Jane's wisecracking flirtations haven't come close to tapping the potential of shoehorning history's most accomplished detective into the world of smartphones, Google searches and tabloid newspapers.
Which is why I'm salivating over the return to PBS's Masterpiece Mystery at 9 p.m. Sunday of Sherlock, the BBC's inspired reinvention and modernization of the best crime-fighting character to hit literature until Bruce Wayne picked out a black cowl and cape (yes, comic books are literature to this fanboy; deal with it).
In this Sherlock, Holmes is an impatient consultant to Scotland Yard, skilled with a microscope and cursed with powers of observation so acute, he totters on the verge of Asperger's-style social autism.
Holmes thinks so far ahead of mere mortals, he can guess the contents of a Christmas present by shaking the box. But he's so socially stunted, he can't deduce that the gal pal he has identified as a lovestruck hottie is actually crushing on him.
Producers gleefully pull modern times into the storylines, giving inspired sidekick Dr. John Watson a blogging habit that turns the two of them into Internet stars. When a potential case provides limited interest, Holmes sends Watson to the crime scene with an open laptop, using the webcam to check out details he couldn't be bothered to peruse in person.
Benedict Cumberbatch is appropriately focused and distracted as Holmes; an angular, less charming take on the typical brainy eccentric British TV loves to turn into heroes (see Doctor Who, Torchwood, Luther, etc.). Even this prickly genius needs a team, so he tolerates Watson, earthy Detective Inspector Lestrade and the flighty landlady-housekeeper-cook Mrs. Hudson.
Still, it is Martin Freeman's Watson who offers the most masterful, understated performance. Freeman, destined for stardom as the lead in Peter Jackson's film of The Hobbit, plays Watson as a damaged ex-military doctor made more whole through his work with Holmes; smart enough to let Holmes be Holmes and caring enough to be his emotions when needed.
Even as you watch these two characters grow into the kind of teasing partnership we've seen 10,000 times before, Freeman and Cumberbatch take it to new levels. My fave line comes from Watson when asked by Holmes to strike him on purpose: "Usually, when I hear you say 'Hit me,' it's only in subtext," the good doctor cracks.
But the finest achievement here may be the production. Executive producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (who also plays the detective's brother, Mycroft) re-create the shifting gears of Holmes' perceptions by the deft use of closeups, text and surreal imagery.
When Holmes looks at Watson, a series of short closeups and artfully placed text tells us the details that reveal the doctor's later plans that evening. When a brilliant dominatrix wants to confuse Holmes, she greets him in the nude, as artfully placed question marks reveal the difficulty of deductive reasoning applied to a beautiful woman's birthday suit.
And when Holmes deduces how a man was killed in an open field, yards away from the only bystander, producers leverage a unique blend of stop-motion visuals and dialogue to reveal how the deed was done, providing an artful window into the way his mind works in the bargain.
If there is a weakness here, it is in the characters Moffat chooses as Holmes' ultimate nemeses, the dominatrix Irene Adler and criminal genius Jim Moriarty. Adler is a woman brilliant enough to get his attention — but not best him — and Moriarty is a criminal genius who engineers a showdown that grows silly as viewers must puzzle who really is three steps ahead of the other.
Still, their reinvention of the Hound of the Baskervilles is inspired and the rest is just very, very good.
But be warned: After watching this Sherlock, the gumshoes crowding network TV will seem awfully pale by comparison.
n The Best Not-Sherlocks on TV
Gregory House (Hugh Laurie), Fox's House
He watches soap operas instead of playing a violin and tracks down viruses instead of criminal villains, but this antisocial chief of diagnostic medicine at a fictional New Jersey teaching hospital was openly conceived as a Sherlock Holmes of medicine — complete with an unassuming sidekick who provides his emotional balance. Too bad the mysteries producers used as the excuse for his deductions were often formulaic and rarely compelling as the character studies around them.
Bobby Goren (Vincent D'Onofrio), NBC's Law & Order: Criminal Intent
A master profiler with a startling ability to worm inside the minds of criminal suspects, Goren was also the damaged child of a paranoid schizophrenic mother and unfaithful father. At times, producers made him too knowledgeable — likely to spout German or discuss details of coin collecting while pursuing cases. And the need to keep audiences guessing resulted in mysteries so convoluted, they verged on parody.
Patrick Jane Simon Baker, CBS' The Mentalist
A deductive and observational genius who once used his abilities to masquerade as a notable psychic, Jane now works with a fictional California-based bureau of investigation to solve crimes and chase the serial killer who murdered his family. Given the show's location in CBS's popular procedural lineup, producers seem wary of making the show smart or sly enough to be worthy of Baker's considerable charisma.