When the BBC announced Sherlock, it sounded to a lot of Holmes fans like the textbook example of A Bad Idea. To take Holmes and Watson out of their natural Victorian habitat and plunk them down in the present day seemed madness, precisely the sort of thing that would occur to a blinkered TV executive with more demographic data than taste.
Those of us familiar with the prior work of Mssrs. Moffat and Gatiss weren't much worried, but the more general reaction is easy to understand. After all, one of the greatest parts of Sherlock Holmes' appeal is the fact that his adventures take place in a romantic bygone era of gaslights and hansoms, a time when two good men could vanquish evil armed only with intelligence, bravery and old-fashioned honor. How would that work in an era in which those qualities are perceived to be in woefully short supply?
Perhaps even more central to the question is the viability of the lead character himself. As much as I've adored Holmes since childhood, I confess I always had the niggling suspicion that his unique methods of deduction (or, to be semantically accurate, induction) could never work in the modern age. Victorian England was a place where class, economic and social differences were writ large for all to see, from customs of dress and deference, to the physical effects of various trades on their practitioners, to such fundamental distinctions as regional accent and mode of speech. Easy enough to believe that in the 19th century Sherlock Holmes could spot a military doctor by his bearing, a poor man by his hat lining, or a compositor by his thumb; how to make such minute observations in our time, when everyone wears blue jeans or mass-produced suits; when personal and professional mobility are, in the Western world at least, at levels undreamed of by Doyle; and when our ways of living, and making a living, tend to leave perceptible electronic traces on our hard drives and cell phones, but no such readily identifiable marks on our bodies?
But it's remarkable how easy it is, time and again, to forget the lesson Watson knew so well: It's all absurdly simple once you see how it's done. And having now seen it done in three absurdly entertaining adventures, the trick is obvious.
Moffat and Gatiss knew what we tend to forget: that the Victorian Era has become, by simple passage of time, a fantasy land with no more actual reality to us than Hogwarts and Middle Earth have... and that this was not the case when the Holmes stories were first published. Holmes and Watson's world was the same world their original readers saw outside the window and on the street (albeit perhaps with a greater incidence of red-headed men or spectral hounds); the stories had an immediacy, a familiarity, and an I've-done-that-myself! shock of recognition that we can't experience while reading Doyle today, no matter how hard we try. The result of this is that the stories exist at a slight remove from us now—behind a crinoline curtain, if you will—that prevents them from being the contemporary, modern thrill rides they were for readers of the day.
Sherlock, by transliterating the letter and spirit of Dr. Doyle's creation into current idiom, once again allows us to ride beside Sherlock and John in a familiar London taxicab, to thrill at astounding deductions drawn from the seeming mundanities of everyday life, to shudder at crimes that reflect what we see in the modern tabloids rather than in the agony columns of more than a century ago. And because we lament the fact that Victorian decency and bravery have become anachronisms, we remain hungrier than ever for stories in which brilliant, courageous heroes can still combat the evils of today, and win. This is Sherlock's secret weapon: its creators' absurdly simple insight that the period setting is the least important thing about Sherlock Holmes.
As for my doubts about whether Holmes could do the things he does in the present day: having raised the question, I've no qualms about admitting it's a load of nonsense. All Sherlock Holmes' tricks are, in the words of a distant relative of his, mere flummery. It doesn't matter how he's able to see things no other man or woman can see any more than it matters how Superman can fly: it's that he does it. We're content to accept a seemingly plausible explanation, but the explanation itself is less important than the process of seeing Holmes explain his magic to us, the millions of gaping, delighted Watsons. We couldn't do it ourselves if you held a gun in our mouths, and we couldn't care less if Holmes really could either; we're too busy believing that he and only he can.
Could today's Sherlock really recognize a software developer by his tie? Would the iPhone in your pocket speak volumes about your life to a close observer? Maybe, maybe not. Who cares? We came for the game. And the game is no longer afoot but most definitely on, more exciting and fresh than it's been since gaslight days, thanks to storytelling brilliance by two masters of the craft and their incomparable band of artists and technicians—Sherlock's not-so-secret weapon.
"Conan Doyle's stories were never about frock coats and gas light; they're about brilliant detection, dreadful villains and blood-curdling crimes – and frankly, to hell with the crinoline. Other detectives have cases, Sherlock Holmes has adventures, and that's what matters."—Steven Moffat