TV Review: Sherlock: A Study in Pink


S1, E1: ‘A Study in Pink’

Hook yourselves up to ninety minutes of pure pleasure

Grade: B+


Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, frequent collaborators on Doctor Who, bend their ingenuity to another beloved and very British cultural icon: Sherlock Holmes. The result quickly devolves into a maddeningly inconsistent festival of masturbation that never strays beyond ‘undergraduate who is fully thirty per cent less clever than he thinks he is’. Before the show disappears up its own bumhole, though, enjoy 270 minutes of loving Holmes fanfiction, and talented stars with crackling chemistry.

Sherlock Holmes is one of the most interrogated and most adapted characters in literature. Apart from the adaptations using the actual character in film, theatre and television, he has set the template for effectively any lone genius using his/her powers of observation to find new clues, or new insights from old clues. Forget clear homages like House or Zero EffectMonk and even some iterations of Batman may owe much to Holmes. I yield to no woman in my love of Agatha Christie, but I have to admit that Poirot would be inconceivable without Holmes (or Arsene Lupin). Miss Marple, on the other hand, is a different breed. All hail Miss Marple.

In many ways, the Holmes canon is a natural fit for Moffat and Gatiss’s sensibilities: the stories are primarily adventure yarns with bursts of fluent exposition from a bright-eyed loner being awesome with a capital A. The stories are also – in that archetypally Victorian/Edwardian way – emphatically sexless. There may be beautiful women dotted about (and Watson certainly makes Holmes sound terribly dishy, doesn’t he?) but let’s be clear: this is about two blokes running around with yellow mists swirling about their ankles, foiling secret societies and sinister villains.

Of course, sexless may not be quite the term – there’s probably Holmes/Watson slash fiction in Queen Victoria’s diaries. And all recent Holmes adaptations (including House and – of course – the recent Guy Ritchie films) have nudged and winked and played with the homoeroticism latent in Holmes and Watson’s deep and prickly friendship. Sherlock vigorously embraces the trope right from the off, with results ranging from tiresomely gay-panic-y to genuinely delightful.

The Holmes canon is also a perfect fit for Moffat and Gatiss in that the charismatic star is not actually the protagonist, and the stories really suffer when too much attention is paid to him. But we don’t need to worry about that too much in A Study in Pink, which is a fleet-footed, exuberant, beautifully-balanced cocktail. Let’s get to it:

‘Nothing happens to me.’

Captain John Watson (Martin Freeman), formerly of the Royal Army Medical Corps, is struggling to adjust to civilian life. He has nightmares which bring him to shaking, sobbing wakefulness. He has a tremor and a limp and he reads his therapist’s writing upside down. His therapist encourages him to write a blog (….maybe that’s what I ought to have done directly out of grad school) to which he responds with polite blankness. Looks like someone needs a friend – or at least a flatmate…

‘Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!……..You know where to find me.’

And what would such a friend look like? He casts a long shadow, this one: we first meet him offscreen sending obnoxious text messages to journalists dissing Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) and his Scotland Yard team’s approach to a string of apparent suicides. We get a look at him in person shortly, thrashing a corpse with a riding crop, rapping out instructions to the smitten forensic pathologist (Louise Breeley) and (deliberately?) misunderstanding her romantic overtures.

Within seconds of meeting John, the fellow (Benedict Cumberbatch) has borrowed his mobile, deduced his former profession, his relationship with his alcoholic, spouse-abandoning brother, and that his limp is psychosomatic. In return, he offers that he plays the violin, that he doesn’t talk for days on end sometimes, that his name is Sherlock Holmes and the address is – say it with me – 221B Baker Street. It’s terrific, honestly – one of the best scenes in the series. It’s tense, playful, sharp, and you can see the sparks fly before your eyes. Between Freeman’s puzzled, watchful John and Cumberbatch’s brusquely eccentric Sherlock, there’s an energy that could power a small country.

‘And since yesterday you’ve moved in with him and now you’re solving crimes together. Might we expect a happy announcement by the end of the week?’

We see it again when Lestrade asks for Sherlock’s help, and Sherlock gets John to go with him to inspect the corpse of the newest ‘suicide’. John reads a newspaper, stewing over his enforced inactivity, when Sherlock appears at the door. Voices dropping to conspiratorial murmurs, they discuss John’s military experience, and the carnage he has seen. After agreeing that it’s ‘enough for a lifetime’, Sherlock purrs ‘want to see some more?’ and John breathes ‘Oh God, yes.’ It’s a seduction, pure and simple, and it. Is. Delightful.

They speed off to the crime scene, where Sherlock is impressive and douchey in – eh, let’s be generous and call it equal measure. Sherlock has an inspiration and races off in search of it, leaving John behind. He receives a warning from Sergeant Donovan (Vinette Robinson) to stay away from the ‘psychopath’ Sherlock Holmes, is kidnapped by a mellifluous, umbrella-twirling stranger (Mark Gatiss) who can control CCTV cameras. The stranger (later to be discovered as Mycroft Holmes) says Sherlock would probably call him his ‘arch-enemy’, and offers John a threat, a bribe and a diagnosis in short order.

‘You’re not haunted by the war, Doctor Watson. You miss it.’

The show is sharpest when it focusses on John – which is exactly as you’d expect. Sherlock Holmes adaptations live and die by their Watsons, not their Holmeses, and Sherlock has a glorious Watson in Freeman’s moral, steely John. It’s a beautifully elegant subversion of expectations to show us a nightmare-ridden John with his psychosomatic tremors and pains, tick off almost every stereotypical marker of PTSD, and then let us know that what Sherlock can actually give John is not an escape from the battlefield, but a return to it. And not just any battlefield – John’s no garden variety adrenaline junkie. Bungee jumping wouldn’t do it for him. But racing over the rooftops in quest of a serial killer? Well, his hand’s as steady as a rock and he’s completely forgotten about his cane.

‘You know, I’ve got a phone. I mean..very clever and all that, but you could’ve just phoned me. On my phone.’

And what does Watson give Holmes? The show’s a little less clear about that, but we have some candidate explanations. One is acceptance: John is candidly appreciative of Sherlock’s abilities, instead of rolling his eyes and dismissing him as much of Scotland Yard does, or calling him a freak. A second is moral, or at least social, guidance: I was charmed despite myself when Sherlock makes a faux pas and mutters to John ‘Not good?’, receiving the masterly understatement of ‘Bit not good, yeah’ in response. But one of my favourite aspects of Sherlock’s John is a certain unflappable common-sense. He is quietly unimpressed by Mycroft’s urbane theatrics, and thinks to take down the number of the cab when they’re giving pursuit. Following up on the latter instead of giving chase, by the way, may well have cut short the enquiry by at least a few hours. But then we wouldn’t get our thesis statement about Sherlock Holmes, would we?

‘What’s the point of being clever if there’s no one to prove it to?’

Because Sherlock, you see, is the sort of person who gets into the backseat of a cab driven by a serial killer, out of curiosity. Sherlock is the sort of person who will swallow a pill he knows might be poisoned – just to prove that he’s cleverer than everyone else. Sherlock, you see, is a genius. But Sherlock, you see, is an idiot.

‘You’re probably looking for a man with a history of military service, with nerves of steel’

Thankfully, he has John there to follow up on the leads that he generated out of his Mighty Sherlock Brain before gadding off with a serial killer for shits and giggles. He has John to literally follow him. And he has John to pull off a kill shot from across the street to save him from himself.

Sherlock does a little light torturing of the serial killer, extracts the name of his ‘fan’ who sponsors serial killers (anyone who was muttering ‘Moriarty’ and rolling their eyes, raise a glass), and sits with a shock blanket shirtily answering Lestrade’s questions. He launches into a stream of deductions about the possible identity of the shooter and only shuts up when he realises that he is exactly describing John, standing placidly behind the police line looking like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. He backpedals with a quickness, and goes to confront his worryingly calm flatmate.

‘We can’t giggle, it’s a crime scene.’

And it’s here that the show stakes its ground to its saving grace: the easy chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman. The show could not care less about its mystery, or retaining even the semblance of plausibility. But while John and Sherlock are snarking and bantering and giggling at crime scenes, in hallways and on cobbled streets, there’s much to love.

Deerstalking: Holmes canon nods

  • A Study in Pink is of course a tweak to the first Holmes/Watson outing, A Study in Scarlet.
  • The second ‘suicide’ is that of James Phillimore, mentioned in The Problem of Thor Bridge as one of the ‘unfinished tales’ of the man who went into his house for an umbrella and was never seen again.
  • The friend introducing John and Sherlock is the Mike Stamford who effected Holmes and Watson’s introduction in A Study in Scarlet.
  • ‘Afghanistan or Iraq?’ is, of course, almost identical to the ‘You have been in Afghanistan, I perceive’ with which Holmes first greets Watson. A century later, and UK military intervention references need only cursory updating. Plus ca change…..
  • Sherlock’s rapid-fire deduction with John’s phone is based on something very similar Holmes does with Watson’s watch in The Sign of Four.
  • ‘The game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!’ Didn’t need the modification, surely? Holmes was quoting from Henry V when he said ‘the game is afoot’ in The Adventure of the Abbey Grange.
  • I’m assuming the repeated ‘not your housekeeper!’ is a reference to the confusion about Mrs. Hudson’s actual job in the books?
  • ‘It’s a three patch problem’ is taken from ‘It is quite a three pipe problem’ from The Red-Headed League.

Odds and sods

  • Sherlock walks a line between bluntness and outright dickishness, and falls off it far, far too often. There is a difference between his apparently genuinely oblivious ‘Your mouth’s too.. small.. now’ to Molly, and his frequent ‘What is it like in your funny little brains?’ bloviating. Cumberbatch does his best, but those lines are nothing like well-written enough to justify how gratuitously nasty they are.
  • I’m going to be bitching about the show’s treatment of women throughout this show, so I might as well begin here. The women on the show are, so far, either chew toys (Ugh, Molly), needlessly aggressive shrews (Sally, who also gets a steaming hot cup of Slut-Shaming) or ditzy Old Dears (Mrs. Hudson, who makes it work because she is played by Una Freaking Stubbs).
  • You’ll notice I haven’t talked about the actual crimesolving yet. That is because Sherlock follows the Conan Doyle stories in being by and large utterly indifferent to the actual procedural element. There are individual dazzling flights of logic, but they’re used as punctuation, to finish off individual scenes, rather than to advance the plot. That said, if anyone’s pretending that there’s material in the episode to play along and solve the mystery, let’s hear it.
  • Oh yeah. Moriarty gets a name-check. Can we all agree that Arch-Nemeses are tedious, and Moriarty specifically is a bit-player whose legend is completely out of proportion to his actual significance in the novels?
  • This show, by the bye, is a treat for all senses. The music’s playful and deft, the costume design is impeccable (check out Sherlock’s cape-like Belstaff and John’s oatmeal jumper) and check out the contrast between the washed-out greys of John’s old life compared to the neons of London and the vivid wallpaper of 221B.


For more of my posts about Sherlock, see here.

6 thoughts on “TV Review: Sherlock: A Study in Pink

  1. I loved this first episode. I thought it was so clever how they had adapted the 19th-century characters to a 21st-century setting. Ironic that John Watson can still be a returnee from the war in Afghanistan. And Sherlock as a sort of ADD-ridden, Asberger’sy-type character works very well.

    I don’t know why precisely…but I found the confrontation scene with the villain a bit flat. I guess as you write, these yarns were never intended to be deeply intellectual murder mysteries. The denouments are frequently a bit “wha…?” if you stop and think about them and mercifully the writers don’t allow you to.

    But a brilliant start.

    Liked by 1 person

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