Proof “Sherlock” Lives

The crime drama returns to PBS Sunday to prove that Sherlock Holmes isn’t only the best detective in the world, but on television.

During an equally absurd and hilarious recent episode of "Community" that centered on the search for a fiend who drops coins down the back of victims' pants, oddball pop culture obsessive Abed steps up to play detective – in TV terms.

“I see a man using a social disorder as a procedural device,” he said. “Wait, wait – I see another man. Mildly autistic super detectives everywhere – cable, broadcast networks… painful writing. It hurts.” 

The meta moment from a show fueled by them took a playful knock at the proliferation of formulaic shows filled with eccentric crime solvers. Abed didn't name names, but it’s a good bet television’s ultimate fanboy at least likes the BBC’s modern rendering of the detective who started the genre: Sherlock Holmes.

“Sherlock” makes a welcome return to PBS Sunday for a third season in a bid to prove that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's hyper-observant sleuth isn’t only the best detective in the world, but on television.

Season 3 of "Sherlock" arrives a month after PBS aired “How Sherlock Holmes Changed the World,” an occasionally enlightening special about the fictional detective's real impact on forensic crime investigation techniques. But perhaps a timelier documentary might be "How Sherlock Holmes Changed TV."

The fruits of 221B Baker Street can be found these days across the small-screen landscape, from “CSI” to “NCIS” to “Elementary,” another current-day Holmes reimagining that takes him to New York and makes Watson a woman. All succeed, to varying degrees, but none pack the consistence brilliance of "Sherlock," which arrives with some distinct advantages.

The top-notch creative team keeps close to the spirit of Doyle’s original stories and characters, with appropriate modern tweaks (the Watson of “Sherlock,” like his Victorian predecessor, saw action in Afghanistan). Today’s audiences, raised in a digital world, come equipped to relate, on some level, to Holmes, who thinks like a computer. The show uses simple, but effective graphics to see, not just hear, his thought process.

There’s great chemistry between Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes – arrogant with a hint of insecurity and clueless about human relations – and Martin Freeman’s Watson, who balances world-weariness with an abundance of loyalty, and possesses an emotional intelligence to match his trying buddy's IQ.

Since “Sherlock” debuted nearly 3 ½ years ago, both actors’ stars have risen – most notably with their recent teaming as the title characters in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” in which Freeman’s Bilbo Baggins tries to outwit Cumberbatch’s fiery dragon with an attitude (and a chilling voice). They haven’t quite reached the Hollywood heights of, say, Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law, whose pair of fun, action-packed Holmes flicks became movie house hits. But some “Sherlock” installments are good enough for theatrical release, if not box office glory.

Which brings us to the biggest edge “Sherlock” has over the TV competition: short seasons. Producing three 90-minute or so installments a year doesn’t compare to churning out a couple dozen hour-long episodes, perhaps explaining some of the “painful” writing Abed decried.

In that respect “Sherlock” is a throwback to 1970s “NBC Mystery Movie,” which featured the exploits of a rotating band of detectives – most significantly, “Colombo,” still American TV 's closest counterpart to Holmes.

The last we saw “Sherlock,” Holmes presumably died. There’s no mystery that he’s coming back, as definitively shown in an online mini-episode posted on Christmas Eve. What fans want to know is how – and why – the consulting detective faked his death as “Sherlock” builds a case against some distinguished predecessors as the Sherlock Holmes adaptation for the ages.

As we await Sunday’s season premiere, check out a preview and revisit the mini-episode below:

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, milt-media NY City News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beadle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.

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