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Netflix Keeps Betting on the Teen Corner of the Sherlock Holmes Cinematic Universe

Breaking down the streaming giant’s new series, ‘The Irregulars,’ which is part ‘Stranger Things’ and part ‘The X-Files’

Netflix/Ringer illustration

The problem with telling and retelling Sherlock Holmes stories for 134 years is that at some point you run out of angles. Which is how you get to Sherlock Holmes being a loser.

Such is the premise of Netflix’s The Irregulars, which hit the streaming service on Friday. Or, well, he’s not exactly a loser, but things certainly aren’t going well for Sherlock: He has tumbled into an extended opium dependency, withdrawn from public life, and generally been a lousy friend, lover, father, brother, and detective. (The latter is a particularly sensitive subject.) The Irregulars focuses not on him but on a side creation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s: a group of hardscrabble London street urchins who canonically helped Holmes with his investigations.

Here, the Irregulars are the main attraction, not to mention the primary detectives. We pick up years after Holmes has retreated into 221B Baker Street, by which point society’s collective memory of his celebrated crime-solving has faded. This is particularly true among the city’s plucky youths, who are led by a cranky, soot-stained former workhouse ward named Bea (Thaddea Graham). Her group is recruited by one Dr. John Watson (Royce Pierreson), who insists that they can go places that he and his fancy waistcoats cannot, and thus make for ideal investigators. The effect is, for much of the series, a kind of Thirty-six Views of Doyle’s deerstalker-clad detective—he’s not the star, or even really a character, so much as he is pretense for the intrigue of 1800s London.

Did I mention that there’s magic? The Irregulars isn’t content to simply shift the perspective away from Holmes: Here, the mysteries are supernatural. There’s a vague explanation of a “rip” in the fabric of space and time, or life and death, or canon or non-canon, or the U.K. and Europe, or something—let’s not worry too much about the specifics. The point is that something has given various ne’er-do-well Londoners mystical powers. Mostly, they use these to carry out personal vengeance, and the motley tweens are dispatched to riddle out the mystery: Who’s making ravens snatch babies? Why do people’s teeth keep falling out? Did that girl just Hannibal Lecter someone’s face? These all unfold in procedural style.

Holmes and Watson take the credit when each case is solved, because, ugh, of course they do. Whereas Holmes’s milieu classically refutes magic—however spooky a case might seem, there’s always a perfectly scientific explanation—The Irregulars gets weird: Bea’s sister, Jessie (Darci Shaw), is clairvoyant, a power that is mainly deployed in freaky visions of plague doctors and freakier chats with a mysterious fellow clairvoyant called the Linen Man (Clarke Peters—yes, really) at his home in the Louisiana bayou, for some reason.

Amusingly, this is not the first teen-focused retelling of Sherlock to hit Netflix this year: That honor goes to last summer’s Enola Holmes, which the streaming giant picked up from Warner Bros. Pictures after the pandemic shuttered movie theaters. There, Sherlock (Henry Cavill) wasn’t so much a loser—that honor went to a villainous Mycroft (Sam Claflin)—as something even worse: a grown-up, and thus incapable of understanding his free-spirited little sister, Enola (Millie Bobby Brown).

The Irregulars tries to spin up the teen intrigue—so long, Sabrina, Bea is my new best friend—and so there are first kisses and experiments with recreational drugs and crushes aplenty. And while Holmes is famed for his discovery of physical clues, Bea and Co. mostly crack cases by riddling out a baddie’s original heartbreak, and talking them down—or at least into ’er Majesty’s Prison Service—from their supernatural reign of terror.

It’s not difficult to imagine the pitch meeting where The Irregulars was born: It’s a Sherlock story that’s part Stranger Things and part The X-Files—a realignment that is also younger and much more diverse than the original source text. Sherlock TV adaptations are nothing new, of course: Recent popular entries include not just the last decade’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Robert Downey Jr. star vehicles, but also Elementary and—if you squintHouse. Nor is this even the only recent Irregulars-focused yarn: It joins 2007’s Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars—which also, naturally, featured a deadbeat Holmes while the kids did the heavy lifting.

Did the Sherlock Holmes–verse need a mystical teen reboot? Well, no. Probably not. But it’s nice to know that the universe might just keep expanding forever.