Benedict Cumberbatch works quite well as Holmes, at times seeming to deliberately emulate the style of Jeremy Brett in the 1980s series (which was fairly faithful to the original stories), but other times carving out his own style. Much of this is because in this series Holmes is a much less sympathetic character, callous and lacking empathy: As Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) says at one point, he’s a great man and maybe someday a good one. Martin Freeman as Doctor John Watson more fully shares the role of protagonist than did his predecessor, being a humanistic figure where Holmes is not.
The series features only three 90-minute stories, of which the first, “A Study in Pink”, is the best. Holmes and Watson meet and become roommates, and solve the mystery of what appear to be serial suicides. It’s the best because the relationship between the two is at its most nuanced here, with Watson showing that he has skills too, albeit very different skills from Holmes. “The Blind Banker” involves a Chinese smuggling ring and a series of murders, and is certainly atmospheric, but focuses on Holmes’ overly-developed sense of importance and capability, while showing him to not be quite as clever or skilled as he thinks he is – but not really seeming to learn from the experience. “The Great Game” presents Holmes with a series of mini-puzzles as an unknown adversary threatens to kill individuals unless Holmes solves his puzzles. This episode seemed a little too clever by half, getting too involved in the mechanics of the plot, while everyone other than Holmes seemed to be shoved to the sidelines. It also unfortunately ends on a cliffhanger.
So the series has its flaws, largely from the writing side, but it’s at its best when it turns the actors and characters loose to interact with one another. It also has some terrific cinematography and excellent music, and the verbal jousting among the characters is first-rate. Fortunately it sounds like a second season is in the works, and hopefully it will build on the first and further develop the characters.