Why you should watch 'Sherlock,' a classic mystery that feels very modern

Image credit: Hartwood Films 2012

There are so many compelling reasons to watch Sherlock, the BBC brain-twister that returns for a second season tonight as part of PBS’s Masterpiece: Mystery series. There’s the simple fact that it’s best procedural on television (at least, according to a totally unscientific poll of my friends), and that trying to keep up with its whiz-bang pacing actually makes you feel smarter. (Or maybe it’s just the effect of hearing guys with fancy British accents explain things like Suzhou numerals and the Golem myth while they’re solving crimes.)

Also, its two stars, Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock, and Martin Freeman (Watson), have such amazing chemistry, the writers can’t help but tease them about it within the show: it’s a running joke that everyone always assumes they’re lovers. (Watson is straight. As for Sherlock, well… it’s hard to tell.)

And for all you Arthur Conan Doyle purists out there, Sherlock couldn’t have better creators than Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. Both men really understand Victorian literature—Moffat previously adapted The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for 2007’s Jekyll, and Gatiss wrote the Dickens-inspired Doctor Who episode, “The Unquiet Dead”—and they’re always making inside jokes that reference the original stories. (Not to worry if you haven’t read Doyle. You’ll still catch the little nods to the original, like the fact that the famously pipe-smoking Sherlock now wears a nicotine patch.)

But for me, the most exciting thing about Sherlock is how it takes some dusty old mysteries from the 19th century and makes them feel so thoroughly of-the-moment. It’s not just that technology is essential to Sherlock‘s crime-solving process, though that’s part of what makes the show so fun to watch. The season premiere, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” finds Watson blogging about his adventures and using video conferencing to connect Sherlock to the scene of a crime. Meanwhile, much of the plot hinges upon the text messages Sherlock exchanges with a mysterious woman.

But it takes more than a cell phone and a Skype account to make this classic feel so modern. What’s far more interesting is how well Sherlock mirrors the way we solve problems in 2012.

(Warning: there’s a few very minor spoilers ahead.)

In many ways, Sherlock’s relationship with Watson is probably much like your relationship with your smart phone. As Alan Cumming notes in the introduction to the second season, Sherlock’s mind “has more apps than an iPhone.” He’s like an external brain for his partner, able to retrieve information in a split second. In fact, he’s constantly being timed on how quickly he can answer a question.

During last season’s finale, he was given only a few minutes to deduce why a Vermeer painting was a fake; if he didn’t deliver, innocent people would be killed. So like a living, breathing Wikipedia app, he offered a complete history of Vermeer, abridged for everyone’s convenience, complete with historical dates and art-history footnotes. Watching him beat the clock, I couldn’t help but think of those AT&T commercials where the whole world seems to stop for anyone who doesn’t have 4G service. On Sherlock, faster access to information is literally a life-or-death issue.

Sherlock takes for granted that digital intelligence and human intelligence are inextricably linked, and the show’s very cool, futuristic art direction reinforces this idea. When Sherlock and Watson send or receive text messages, the words appear as a line that’s floating right by their heads, as if their cell phones are simply a natural extension of what’s going on inside their skulls.When Sherlock looks around a room for evidence, the viewer zooms in upon what he’s seeing as if it’s appearing on an iPad screen, with every item labeled and tagged for us like pins dropped on Google Maps.

If it sounds like Sherlock is more machine than man, well, Watson suspects that’s true: Sherlock has trouble deciphering emotions. (This is why some amateur sleuths are postulating that the character has Asperger’s syndrome.) At one point, Watson tells Sherlock that he blogs about their adventures because “people like to know that you’re human.”

For Sherlock, the world is just endless data, and he’s the perfect search engine to sort through it. When he’s not fooling around on Watson’s computer, he’s always skipping from one subject to the next, trying to keep himself from getting bored. “A Scandal in Belgravia” finds him interviewing prospective clients as if he could just point and click on the next one when he’s ready. (“Get to the good part!” he tells one. “Boring!” he tells another.)

Here is a man who embodies much of what your grandparents feared about the digital age: that it’s shortening attention people’s spans, making them less empathetic and more isolated. (In the next episode, Sherlock admits that he doesn’t have any friends.) And yet, Sherlock is also a great strike against any argument that the internet is making us dumber. His powers of concentration are unmatched. His knowledge runs deep. Most important, he forces the rest of us to focus. Sherlock is one of the only shows that makes me put away my laptop before it starts, because the second I start checking Twitter, I’ll lose my hold on the very complicated plot.

As for Sherlock’s constant battle with boredom, well, that’s no problem for you and me. By the end of “A Scandal in Belgravia,” our hero will have visited Buckingham Palace wearing nothing more than a bed sheet and played some very interesting games with a dominatrix. So go ahead and watch (and then read Ken Tucker’s review), because we know you’re dying to see Cumberbatch greet the royals half-naked. It’s elementary.

More on EW.com
‘Sherlock’ returns tonight: a video preview
‘Sherlock': a dominatrix, a nude scene, and Holmes in love?
Why so much Sherlock? It’s elementary…

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