Brainy is the New Sexy: ‘Sherlock Season Two’

The Woman. The Hound. The Professor. Co-creator Steven Moffat named these three canon characters as crucial to an understanding of Sherlock Holmes. Each becomes the focal point of a second season Sherlock episode, and a catalyst for changing the title character (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) from the man we met in season one. Fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle will recognize details from “A Scandal in Bohemia”, “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Final Problem”. In Sherlock, these tales are translated into “A Scandal in Belgravia”, “The Hounds of Baskerville” and “The Reichenbach Fall” — all clever modernizations of not only the titles, but also key elements of some of the most familiar stories in the canon.

“A Scandal in Belgravia” retains a blackmail scandal of royal proportions. This time, however, The Woman—Irene Adler (Lara Pulver)—is a dominatrix determined to whip the government into submission. “The Hounds of Baskerville” is an innovative take on probably the best known of the Holmes stories, but the hound resides less often on the moors and more in the minds of manipulative men. “The Reichenbach Fall” is a reference to Conan Doyle’s setting of Switzerland’s Reichenbach Falls for the ultimate battle between Holmes and Moriarty. This episode muses on the power of the press and the nature of celebrity. It also separates Sherlock from his partner in crime solving, John Watson (Martin Freeman), and reunites the consulting detective with the consulting criminal, Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott), who is not a professor but a bored, terrifyingly demanding CEO of his own empire.

The first season of Sherlock was brilliantly written and beautifully acted, which made the second season a greater challenge to returning writers, cast, and crew. Between the ending of the first year’s filming and the beginning of location shoots on the second, Sherlock had become an international darling. It was a mainstream hit in the UK and, much to BBC Worldwide’s delight, a top seller overseas. The series propelled Cumberbatch and Freeman into the firmament of television and film stardom. Cumberbatch’s roles in War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and next summer’s Star Trek have kept the actor busy when he isn’t starring as Sherlock, and Freeman has spent Sherlock hiatuses in New Zealand, playing the lead role in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films.

Along the way, Sherlock garnered plenty of awards, including the BAFTA, Edinburgh International Television Festival, Royal Television Society (RTS), and South Bank Sky awards as best television drama, Banff Television “Rockie” Award as best continuing series, and (US) Peabody Award for Entertainment. Freeman won a BAFTA in 2011 for playing Watson and is nominated again this year (alongside “Moriarty”) as best supporting actor. For his part, Cumberbatch was nominated but did not win the BAFTA in 2011; he has another opportunity to be named Best Actor this year. He consoled himself in the past year with other awards, including an Olivier for best actor in Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the National Theatre.

But audiences don’t need to know all that in order to enjoy this DVD set of three 90-minute episodes. Despite the pressure to produce an equally enjoyable second season, everyone involved succeeded admirably. Co-creator Mark Gatiss (who also plays the drolly menacing Mycroft Holmes) insists these stories are films, not television episodes. Each 90-minute story is a self-contained unit. However, the most recent series of three chronicles Sherlock’s growing public acclaim, which leads to a spectacular fall from glory. Always lurking in the periphery and biding his time is Moriarty. “A Scandal in Belgravia” begins exactly where “The Great Game” left off, at that now-famous swimming pool during a standoff between Sherlock and Moriarty. “The Reichenbach Fall” is the logical (but also quite emotional) culmination of their gamesmanship and rivalry.

Although the plots are deadly serious, the episodes are surprisingly humorous, especially in scenes when John and Sherlock get the giggles over the absurdity of their lives. In “Scandal”, the pair find themselves awaiting a client at Buckingham Palace. Sherlock is clad only in a sheet. John casually glances over at his flatmate, who had arrived earlier. “Are you wearing pants?” he matter-of-factly asks. Sherlock admits he is not. The two wait a beat before bursting into laughter.

John later confides that he is tempted to steal an ashtray as a souvenir. After all, how many times will he be summoned to the palace? On their way home to 221B Baker, Sherlock presents a pilfered ashtray to John. These lighthearted character moments underscore the bond between Sherlock and John as well as appropriately varying the episode’s intensity and pace.

Unfortunately, the ashtray scene was cut from the PBS broadcast in early May. However, the complete films, as shown on the BBC, are in this DVD collection. Hartswood Films and Sherlock producer Sue Vertue mourns the loss of the eight minutes she must cut from each PBS episode in order for it to fit the time constraints of Masterpiece Mystery!. During an early screening in New York City, Cumberbatch was “Scandal”ized when he noticed edits and later emphasized that everyone should see the complete version. This DVD set provides just that.

Season two stories illustrate just how much the lead characters have become a well-balanced team in the six months following “The Great Game”, the final episode of season one. Such unity is necessary for the well-known friendship to survive the stresses presented in the most recent stories. “A Scandal in Belgravia” presents Sherlock with the dilemma of love in the memorable figure of Irene Adler. In many ways, Adler is Sherlock’s “evil twin” who can match wits with him but is not reined in by a companion’s conscience. Irene, or even Moriarty, indicates what Sherlock could become without John’s influence.

Just as “Scandal” confounds Sherlock with the often messy nature of love, “The Hounds of Baskerville” has him confront terror and question what he sees. “The Reichenbach Fall” requires him to decide whether to act heroically, a far cry from the very first episode, when Sherlock assures John that he is not a hero. In fact, season two could be considered the humanization of Holmes. The new episodes allow us, as well as Sherlock, to explore his emotions and vulnerability, now that we’re familiar with his intellect.

The acting is superb. Cumberbatch and Freeman set a very high bar, but regular cast and guest actors clear it with ease. Una Stubbs’ Mrs. Hudson is a surrogate mother with a spine of steel. Rupert Graves’ Lestrade should receive more screen time; even his briefest action or reaction in a scene signals the depth and complexity of his relationship with Sherlock and John. As Molly Hooper becomes more important to the season’s story arc, Louise Brealey proves that her character is far more insightful and compassionate than Sherlock gives her credit for.

Music composed by David Arnold and Michael Price, including Sherlock’s haunting violin solo for Irene Adler, establishes the characters and creates a soundtrack worth hearing on its own. Creative camera work, often coupled with on-screen text summarizing Sherlock’s deductions, brings us into the story. The set dressing in 221B is a Conan Doyle lover’s dream, but even viewers unfamiliar with the canon can appreciate the many unique touches to this excellent television series. Wall decorations include the periodic table, a skull print, and a moose wearing headphones, and cigarettes might be hidden in a decorative Persian slipper on the hearth or under a human skull on the mantel.

If there are complaints about season two, other than it being too short for many fans’ liking, it’s that, as with the first season, the middle episode (“Hounds”) is weaker than the others, but it’s still very good. Those who didn’t care for the modernization of Moriarty (first introduced as fawning “Jim from IT”) probably won’t like him in manic mode this time around. Some viewers may not like the “Fall”, but the final scenes will give everyone plenty to analyze online.

The DVD extras, while interesting, are minimal additions to the set. We are invited to “uncover Sherlock” and Cumberbatch, Freeman, Moffat, and Gatiss, among others, explain character developments and special effects. Commentaries, each featuring Moffat, Gatiss, and Vertue, accompany only the first two episodes. The first also provides Pulver’s and Cumberbatch’s insights into filming “Scandal” and, in the second, guest actor Russell Tovey (probably best known to US audiences as the lead werewolf in the BBC’s Being Human) discusses his role in the “Hounds” episode. As they should be, the real stars of the DVDs are the uncut episodes.

Irene Adler aptly deduces that “Brainy is the new sexy.” Sherlock is both. “The Reichenbach Fall” leaves us with a cliffhanger of a conclusion to ponder until the series returns sometime in 2013. Until then, fans can scrutinize the DVDs to unravel the thoroughly entertaining Masterpiece Mystery! that is Sherlock.

RATING 9 / 10