Downton Abbey is not the only buzz-worthy upscale/downscale gem from PBS’s Masterpiece this year. Season 2 of Sherlock, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the 21st century version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s ultra-rational hero, begins on Sunday with “A Scandal in Belgravia.” The episode is smartly written by Steven Moffat (Doctor Who) and directed by Paul McGuigan with enough flair to make a cinephile smile – nothing too surprising about that. But it turns out that Cumberbatch himself inspires the kinds of squeals more often associated with Justin Bieber, as I saw first-hand at a preview screening and Q&A in New York on Wednesday.
Ten thousand on-line fans had tried to get tickets for the event. The few hundred who got in -- almost all women around college-age, nowhere near the usual PBS demographic -- screamed when Cumberbatch appeared on screen and screamed louder when he appeared on stage. All this for an actor whose looks are not pretty-boy conventional and whose character is an anti-social know-it-all. It proves a theorem as fundamental to Sherlock as deductive reasoning: braininess is sexy.
That scandal in Belgravia comes via Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), one of Conan Doyle’s nefarious villains and the only woman smart enough to challenge Sherlock. Naturally he finds her seductive. In the 21st century version he has an extra reason: she’s a dominatrix, which inadvertently lands this Sherlock in the midst of the Fifty Shades of Grey explosion. (Together, they make S&M seem almost common.)
But the updated series relies on more than sex and techno-details like Watson’s (Martin Freeman) blog and the incriminating photos of a young royal that Adler has stored in her phone. Sherlock has depths and neuroses that are not only unexplored – he refuses to go near them, creating one of the most intriguing and tightly coiled men on screen today. For all his brilliance, he is an emotional mess, and Cumberbatch lets us glimpse the fact of all that messiness without letting Sherlock drop his brittle, defensive guise to reveal the swirling emotions themselves. Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is a great character, hugely flawed and irresistibly heroic.
McGuigan’s direction is wonderfully stylish. In a stunning hallucinatory episode, Sherlock is drugged in Adler’s flat, a scene that flows into one of him in an open field investigating a murder. A bed rises from the field behind him, and that image gracefully flows into the next, as Sherlock wakes from the dream-state at home in his own room. Like Moffat, McGuigan never lets the contemporary tricks overwhelm the story, and masterfully finds that upscale-literary, mass-appeal balance.
On the mass-appeal side: there were especially loud squeals at the screening for scenes of Sherlock wearing only a sheet. The upscale element: he happened to be in Buckingham Palace.
During the Q&A, which included a wry Moffat and producer Sue Vertue, Cumberbatch was smart, generous to fans and articulate, but there was only one real bit of news: after his success on stage in the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, directed by Danny Boyle, Cumberbatch and Boyle are talking about bringing it to New York. That would make both upstairs and downstairs very happy.