“Sherlock” is back Sunday night for a much-awaited second season on our side of the pond under the PBS “Masterpiece Mystery!” brand. Set in the fashionably sterile modern-day London of shiny architecture and intense Internet speeds, this exceedingly cool upgrading of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Victorian-age sleuth has so far worked wonders for the old chap.
Now, when Holmes and Watson are in pursuit of, say, the monstrous hounds of the Baskerville, they sneak into laser-guarded secret laboratories and deduce encrypted computer passwords. When investigating the connivingly seductive Irene Adler, they hack into her smartphone. When they text each other or see Morse code lights blinking in a nighttime sky, the words and letters float beautifully across walls and horizons — a nice Apple Store-like effect, and a welcome relief for those of us sick of trying to read the tiny text displays sent to and from TV detectives.
Dress this new Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) in a sharply tailored black Burberry suit with an open-collared shirt, then zoom in on his hypnotically bluish-green eyes and Davidesque curls, then write for him entire uninterrupted paragraphs of obsessive-compulsive dialogue, then stand back and let him sizzle.
“Sherlock” has been a big hit in Britain and rapturously received by a certain strain of American fans and critics. A niche market responds to the show’s arid wit, multilayered puzzles and its inventive ability to tech-ify an old story without seeming cheesy.
But what would happen if you got rid of the British accents?
We’d be left with something that would seem so familiar we’d never run out of American network procedurals to compare it to: “House, M.D.” and “The X-Files” and just about every specially abled savant detective CBS has to offer. There’s not one spooky crime show on TV that doesn’t owe debt to the original-recipe Sherlock Holmes.
That’s why there have been a couple hundred Sherlock Holmes film and TV adaptations over the span of pop-culture history, each having its way with the man in the deerstalker hat. Not counting the strenuous efforts of director Guy Ritchie’s two big-budget theatrical movies in 2009 and 2011, Holmes drifted into the fate of all derelict franchises, more Halloween costume and clip-art caricature than literary hero.
“Sherlock” helps make up for all that. It’s co-created and co-written by Steven Moffat, who has given Holmes the same renewed vim he brought to the previously low-rent “Doctor Who.” After the Doctor’s successful makeover — which managed to honor the long-running sci-fi series’ treasured past while enticing a whole new generation of viewers — “Sherlock” seems like a natural progression.
In fact, Cumberbatch’s performance as Sherlock is Doctor-y in tone and swagger. Fans who gobble Cumberbatch up in the role have designated him as a Hot New Thing; after movie roles in “War Horse” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” he’s now filming Peter Jackson’s upcoming “The Hobbit” and landed a villainous part in J.J. Abrams’s “Star Trek” sequel.
He’s quite something, all right, but I can’t be the only one who finds this particular version of Sherlock to be a little grating. He’d be almost unwatchable if it weren’t for the tender devotion and counterbalance Martin Freeman brings to the role of Watson. In Cumberbatch, we get a Holmes who is not merely vain or aloof; he is so socially tone-deaf and brusque that I’d place him on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. “Get out! I need to go to my mind palace!” Sherlock shrieks at Watson, et al. — which means he needs to enter a trance state in which his superior memory and observation skills launch a quick-edit rush of images and clues.
Rather than ask for help at being a kinder and more well-adjusted grown-up, Sherlock is too often a petulant know-it-all, which grows tiresome and makes a viewer painfully aware that each episode is 90 minutes long.
For some reason, the drag and drift is more noticeable in Season 2 than it was in Season 1; even though they live in a ultra-wired world (Watson is constantly blogging; Sherlock becomes a viral celebrity), it takes our heroes much too long to work their way through cases that are often overburdened with one whiz-bang Sherlockian twist after another but provide no real payoff. The modern novelty wears off as dialogue fatigue creeps in.
“Sherlock’s” redundancies are improved by a couple of longer story arcs, particularly in the third episode, when nemesis Moriarty (a wondrously sinister Andrew Scott) returns to wreak a Joker-like havoc and muck with Holmes’s positive PR in the London press. Cumberbatch and Scott match wits, but really it’s a delightful scenery-chewing contest that’s pure fun to watch. It leads to a duplicitous showdown and a final cliffhanger that makes the entire series worthwhile.
(90 minutes) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on WETA and MPT. Series continues May 13 and May 20.