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Originally published Saturday, October 23, 2010 at 1:06 AM

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'Sherlock': A modern Holmes battles crime on PBS

A review of "Sherlock," the new "Masterpiece Mystery!" three-part series on PBS. The series, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a modernized 21st century Holmes, starts Sunday, Oct. 24.

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Benedict Cumberbatch — best known to Americans as the reprehensible houseguest in "Atonement" — is currently enjoying the privilege of playing two of British pop culture's greatest heroes. He's being paid for just one of them, though.

As the star of "Sherlock," the highly entertaining new BBC-"Masterpiece Mystery!" production that comes to PBS on Sunday, he is officially the latest incarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the demon detective of Baker Street.

Anglophilic television fans, however, will sense another character lurking in the bounding physicality and hyperverbal outbursts of this contemporary Holmes. Cumberbatch's performance feels like a slightly dialed-down homage to David Tennant's portrayal of the title role in the modern "Doctor Who." And it's sufficiently enjoyable that fans of that legendary science-fiction show might wish Cumberbatch had auditioned to play the Doctor when Tennant left a season ago.

This connection is not simply fanciful: "Sherlock" was created by Steven Moffat, now the head writer and lead producer of "Doctor Who," and by Mark Gatiss, another writer for that show. In updating Arthur Conan Doyle's foundational detective stories, they have imported some of the boy's-adventure, can-do spirit that informs "Who."

American viewers — those who have aged into the less desirable demographics, anyway — will also notice the family resemblance of this Holmes to our own eccentric-genius police consultants in shows like "Monk" and "The Mentalist." Of course, those characters were based on Sherlock Holmes in the first place.

Over the years the Holmes imitators (along with actual Holmes films and television series) have had one particularly baleful effect, which is to turn the detective's observational powers into a parlor trick. "Sherlock" is guilty of this, too; Holmes tells men he's just met that they've traveled around the world twice in the last month or that they spent the night with that woman over there. It's amusing, but the charm starts to wear off after the third or fourth time; in dramatic terms, it's empty calories.

And Moffat and Gatiss have given the show some of the freneticism and the mind-bending, confusing turns of plot that characterize "Doctor Who." In the third of the three 90-minute "Sherlock" episodes (a second season has been commissioned), Holmes must solve five unrelated cases before he confronts the actual villain of the piece. (At least three Conan Doyle stories were used as sources for the plot.)

Holmes purists may find the non-Victorian pace not to their liking, but then there will be a whole smorgasbord of things to bother them, like Holmes' nicotine patches, the self-conscious emphasis on text messaging and the colors of cellphone cases.

In other ways the show's creators have tried, cleverly and conscientiously, to stay true to the character's heritage. Sunday's premiere, "A Study in Pink" (loosely based on the first of the four Holmes novels, "A Study in Scarlet"), begins with Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) returning home from a British war in Afghanistan — just as the original Watson did in the 1880s — and looking for a roommate. "A Study in Scarlet" was presented as an excerpt from Watson's memoirs; in the second episode of "Sherlock" we learn that Watson has written up "A Study in Pink" on the blog he's keeping as part of his therapy for post-traumatic stress.

Freeman's deft performance as the grouchy but loyal Watson is one of the show's pleasures, along with Rupert Graves' avuncular take on Inspector Lestrade. It should also be mentioned that Graves, who has been making a specialty of guest appearances on British crime dramas ("Marple," "Lewis," "Wallander"), belongs with George Clooney in the pantheon of the well-aging male.

Add Cumberbatch, who brings to the table his piercing gray eyes and an appealingly playful arrogance, and you have an ensemble that lives up to the verve and braininess of Moffat and Gatiss' writing.

There are annoyances: the on-screen text that sometimes spells out Holmes' thoughts; the are-they-gay jokes that now seem obligatory in every show involving male colleagues; a creeping moralism about Holmes' shortcomings. These are elements typical of the contemporary crime drama, which is what "Sherlock" resembles more than it does the Conan Doyle stories.

But it has a brio that sets it apart; the other big new British import of the season, "Luther" on BBC America, looks dour by comparison. The appeal is elementary: good, unpretentious fun, something that's in short supply around here.

"Sherlock" is slated to air on PBS stations at 9 p.m. Sundays (check local listings). The series was produced by Hartswood Films and "Masterpiece" for BBC Wales.

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