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Rehabbing the World’s Greatest Detective: The Brilliant Reinvention of ‘Miss Sherlock’

HBO’s new international mystery series revives Arthur Conan Doyle’s iconic character—and makes some modern adjustments

HBO/Ringer illustration

Miss Sherlock, a new HBO series, has solved the great corruption of so many popular Sherlock Holmes adaptations that came before it: celebrating the detective’s genius without the flattery of transforming Holmes into a manic-pixie detective or, worse yet, an insufferable dick.

In 1930, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died regretting Sherlock Holmes’s outsized place in his literary legacy. The joke’s on him and his estate. In the 21st century, Sherlock Holmes has only grown more popular—and redundant. House reimagined Holmes as a cantankerous, drug-addled physician, Dr. Gregory House, played by Hugh Laurie. Fussy Dr. Wilson was his Dr. Watson, and the beleaguered Dr. Lisa Cuddy was his Lestrade. There’s even a deadly “Moriarty” antagonist who emerges in the show’s Season 2 finale. In theaters, Guy Ritchie’s two Sherlock Holmes movies, starring Robert Downey Jr., feature the legendary detective with a similar dickishness. And then there’s the popular BBC series, Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Dr. John Watson; the series adapts Sir Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes stories—“A Study in Scarlet,” “The Hound of the Baskervilles,” “The Final Problem,” “The Sign of Four”—into modern, fanciful episodes about Sherlock’s dysfunctional genius. In Sherlock, Dr. Watson watches in horror as Sherlock conducts his investigations with all the grace and efficiency of a hurricane. The U.S. TV series, Elementary—which CBS has run for six seasons—splices some humanitarianism into Sherlock’s edge, registering a mild dissent against the BBC characterization. Cumberbatch did not begin the trend of Sherlock Holmes being a dick, but he has made it the new canon.

But Sherlock Holmes’s cultural capital has fallen into disrepair. For seven years now, Downey Jr. has left the film role dormant given his prevailing commitments to Iron Man and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. BBC’s Sherlock has floundered as its two leads, Cumberbatch and Freeman, prioritized their film careers. (As Doctor Strange, Cumberbatch now fights alongside Downey Jr. in the MCU. So, too, does Martin Freeman.) There’s room for a new Holmes, especially among fans who resent the manic pixie man-genius characterization that’s come to define the legendary detective this century.

Miss Sherlock is the first major series to cast a woman to play the titular detective. HBO and Hulu co-produced the show, which aired in Japan and across Asia earlier this year and now premieres in the U.S. with new episodes airing each Friday. Yuko Takeuchi plays the legendary detective with a quirky, but fashionable edge; Shihori Kanjiya plays Dr. Wato Tachibana—Wato-san—Sherlock’s frumpy junior partner who’s taking a break from the medical profession following some harrowing field work in Syria. In the show’s premiere, Sherlock meets Wato-san, a key witness in a series of gruesome murders, and the episode concludes with Sherlock agreeing, at her brother’s insistence, to take Wato-san on as her roommate in Tokyo apartment 221B. Reluctantly, Sherlock and Wato-san forge their classic partnership. Tokyo police inspector Gentaro Reimon invites Sherlock to scrutinize various crime scenes; meanwhile, clients drop by 221B in hopes of solving their own, private troubles. Sherlock cites Wato-san’s medical expertise and also occasionally uses her as bait. Instead of a diary, Wato-san recounts their misadventures to her therapist.

In Doyle’s stories, Dr. Watson recounts Sherlock’s heroics in his diary, where he celebrates Holmes as a disciplined detective and a good friend. Sherlock is somewhat rude to distrustful subjects, but he is hardly the calamitous man-genius that the Laurie and Cumberbatch performances suggest. Sherlock, in particular, rendered the detective’s supposedly careful deduction as exhaustive, orgasmic belittlement; his insights so illegible that their illegibility becomes the show’s main joke. Sherlock produced one especially maddening trope, Sherlock’s “mind palace,” the computational mode that Sherlock adopts to solve riddles in a pinch. In Sherlock, the “mind palace” analogy obscures Sherlock’s intelligence only to underscore the inscrutable, alien nature of his thinking, which renders him so hopelessly lonely; that alienation forms the core drama of the BBC series, not the mysteries per se.

In Miss Sherlock, the titular detective’s lonesomeness is far less tragic. She’s an adventurous career woman, and it’s simply never occurred to her that she might settle down. Her field work is far more intelligible, too. Miss Sherlock takes care to illustrate how the detective’s hobbies and social life inform her expertise and thus form her overall genius, but the show also resists the urge to make her an impossible polymath who has lived a million past lives. Mostly, she reads and she observes. She’s cultured. In the worst-case scenarios, she bluffs.

Mercifully, Miss Sherlock tones the character down from its popular, contemporary excesses. Takeuchi’s Sherlock is rude, but not American rude, nor does she tear through scenes with Cumberbatch’s destructive petulance. In Miss Sherlock, rudeness is a quirk, not a character entirely. Sherlock poses slightly intrusive questions to a business executive. She stomps through a suspect’s house with her shoes on. These are her scandalous offenses. Sherlock bullies poor Wato-san with a playfulness that plays less like contempt or humiliation and more like a hazing. The second episode begins with a long and peaceful scene at 221B: Wato-san and the landlord Kimie Hatano cook breakfast together as Sherlock plays her cello in the living room. Ultimately, Sherlock rejects the lovely breakfast—she demands only black coffee—but the scene has briefly suggested a rare and ideal state of affairs—Sherlock, Wato-san, and their landlord all being friends instead of bitter, abused frenemies.

For the first-season viewer, patience is key. The series debut is dramatically weak: The first culprit is too quickly identifiable by anyone who’s learned the basic TV detective tropes from any given Law & Order season. But the subsequent episodes offer more wild and delightful investigations. Gleefully, Sherlock shows her work and revels in each episode’s abundance of evidence. She struggles against her own arrogance, but never succumbs to pure, stubborn stupidity. The third episode presents a deadly, showstopping riddle, and so Sherlock urgently withdraws to her own “mind palace,” only to later reveal her dramatic meditation to have been a thoughtless, time-killing ruse—a joke at Benedict Cumberbatch’s expense. Miss Sherlock isn’t a total reversion to Sir Conan Doyle’s most civilized characterization, but the season does crucially restore Dr. Watson’s friendship with Sherlock Holmes to something resembling its original fondness.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.