When Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and actor/writer Mark Gatiss announced, in 2008, that they were collaborating on a modern-day update of the stories of Sherlock Holmes to premiere in 2009, many people wondered: Why? In addition to holding a Guinness World Record the “most portrayed literary human character in film and TV,” director Guy Ritchie was already hard at work on a big-screen version that starred Robert Downey Jr. as the titular detective and Jude Law as his sidekick Dr. Watson. But Moffat and Gatiss were convinced that their adaptation–which would thrust Sherlock Holmes into the Twitter age–would be different enough that people wouldn’t care. And when they cast Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as the series’ stars, people started to believe that Sherlock’s creators knew what they were talking about.
But it wasn’t smooth sailing for the show right away. While it was originally planned that each season would consist of six hour-long episodes, the BBC was not happy with the pilot they saw. After some discussion, the format shifted to three episodes per season, each one running 90 minutes in length. The idea was that each would be like a standalone movie–and it worked. (After the pilot was completely reshot.)
Since Sherlock made its debut in the fall of 2010, the series has amassed a deliriously devoted fan base around the world. Unlike previous adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary tales (with the exception of Elementary, which didn’t premiere until 2012), Sherlock is a totally modern story in which technology and brain power work together–rather than compete–in order to help solve a range of crimes that are both familiar and totally new (The Hounds of Baskerville, anyone?).
The smart writing is only augmented by great performances across the board, and not just from Cumberbatch and Freeman; Gatiss, the show’s co-creator, plays Sherlock’s brother (and occasional foil) Mycroft, while Una Stubbs is perfectly oblivious (except when it really matters) as the boys’ landlord, Mrs. Hudson. Andrew Scott has the chops to go head-to-head with Cumberbatch as his number one enemy, Moriarty, while Louis Brealey is wonderfully sweet and forgiving as Molly Hooper, Sherlock’s lovesick doormat.
Now that the fourth season has just kicked off but is already about to end (remember: there are just three episodes per season), it’s time for you to find out what all the fuss is about. Here’s how to binge-watch Sherlock.
Number of Seasons: 3 (10 episodes)
Time Requirements: Don’t let the fact that there are only 10 episodes of the show in its first three seasons fool you. Because each episode is a 90-minute movie, those three seasons equal a total of 900 minutes of viewing. That said, the movie-like style makes it easy to binge-watch the show in very precise doses. Namely: an episode per night, for 10 nights. By the time you’re caught up with the first three seasons, the fourth season–which premiered on New Year’s Day–will have concluded, offering you a bonus binge.
Where to Get Your Fix: Netflix, Amazon
Best Character to Follow: This one really does seem elementary: Sherlock Holmes all the way. Though it’s Sherlock’s interactions with (and, some might say, reliance on) Watson that make the show tick, it’s Benedict Cumberbatch’s seemingly effortless portrayal of the quirky consulting detective that keeps viewers coming back. Yes, he’s almost universally despised by those he meets and regularly acts in manner that is more akin to an emotionless robot than a flesh-and-blood human being. But it’s in the way that the series’ creators illustrate that–using special effects to provide us with a glimpse into Sherlock’s mind–that make us able to empathize with him. Of course, it helps that as the series has continued we’ve seen Sherlock soften–however slightly–in certain ways, making viewers anxious to keep digging further below the surface to see what’s there.
Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip: There are only 10 episodes. Why would you want to miss one? But if you must…
Season 1: Episode 2, “The Blind Banker” After a stunning series premiere, the bar was set pretty high for Sherlock’s second episode, and it didn’t quite deliver. We get to learn more about who Sherlock and Watson are as people–and see Watson begin his life as a kinda sorta ladies’ man. But it doesn’t go so well for him, as he and his date are kidnapped when he’s mistaken for Sherlock, who has unwittingly become the target of a Chinese smuggling ring.
Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip:
Season 1: Episode 1, “A Study in Pink” Though the ending of the series premiere is open-ended and leaves some questions to be answered, “A Study in Pink” could have easily run as a one-off television movie and left viewers completely satisfied. It introduces us to Sherlock and Watson, details their first meeting and awkward getting-to-know-you phase, and ends with seeing them on the road to an actual friendship. (Sherlock also loves to tease the idea that Holmes and Watson were more than just platonic friends, which is a running joke throughout the series.) In between it all, Sherlock helps to investigate a series of purported suicides, which actually turn out to be something quite different.
Season 2: Episode 1, “A Scandal in Belgravia” If there’s one word no one would ever use to describe Sherlock Holmes, as portrayed by Cumberbatch, it’s “speechless.” Yet that’s exactly how he finds himself when he’s dispatched by Buckingham Palace to help save an unnamed royal from scandal by retrieving some compromising photos from Irene Adler, a notorious dominatrix, who Sherlock refers to as “The Woman.” What Sherlock sees as a quick payday turns into a game of wits when he’s taken aback not just by Adler’s beauty–or the fact that she meets him in the nude, in order to throw him off balance–but that she’s equally brilliant. Sherlock, who has the uncanny ability to read everyone he meets like a book–literally, the show uses graphics to point out the little things he sees that allow him to deduce certain truths about the people around him–he’s a total blank when it comes to Adler.
Season 2: Episode 3, “The Reichenbach Fall” There’s always a bit of mystery surrounding Sherlock–and not just in its plot lines. With a cast and crew that are famously busy working on other projects, new episodes are shot when time and schedules allow, which means that there can be large gaps between seasons, and regular questions as to whether the show is coming back at all. For many viewers, the third season finale seemed like it could have been a series finale, as Sherlock walks into a trap set by Moriarty and ends the episode with having to make a life-or-death decision, as Watson helplessly watches from afar. It’s full of some of the series’ best moments.
Season 3: Episode 1, “The Empty Hearse” Season 3 picks up two years after where Season 2 left off, and shows how Watson has moved on with his life in the wake of the last episode’s life-or-death decision. He has even met a woman, Mary, who he wants to marry. The scene in which he attempts to propose is worth the price of your Netflix subscription.
Why You Should Binge: Shows like Sherlock don’t come around as often as they should–or at least as often as we wish they did. While more recent years have seen a rise in so-called “prestige television,” many of the shows that helped to coin that term–like The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire, and Game of Thrones –have concluded their runs or are headed to the series finales. So take it where you can get it. Especially since there’s some debate over when, or even whether, Sherlock will be coming back for a fifth series.
Best Scene–“Rooftop Showdown”:
The final episode in the second season offers a bit of a cliffhanger: Without giving too much away, it ends with a seemingly suicidal Sherlock jumping off a roof while a confused Watson–standing just below him on the street, and trying to talk him down–watches in horror. But what makes the scene so memorable, and seminal, is the juxtaposition it illustrates between two of the show’s most interesting interpersonal dynamics: the relationship between Watson and Sherlock, who are clearly best friends but only in the way that a fairly straitlaced doctor and a genius/”highly functioning sociopath” (Sherlock’s words) with few interpersonal skills can be. At the same time, it features an iconic showdown between Sherlock and his arch nemesis Moriarty.
In an age where the entertainment industry is far more interested in brand recognition than originality–where it often seems like the large majority of our watching options on both the small and big screens is relegated to sequels, remakes, reboots, and adaptations–it’s a pleasant reminder that even the most well-trodden material is ripe for true reinvention (at least when it’s put into the right hands).
If You Like Sherlock, You’ll Love: If it’s specifically more Sherlock Holmes (even a Cumberbatch-less Sherlock Holmes) that you’re craving, there are plenty of film and television adaptations of the iconic character. But Jeremy Brett’s incarnation of him in the ITV series The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1985) remains one of the standouts. (Though you may have to purchase the DVD collection.)
If it’s just more nuanced English crime drama that you’re after, Broadchurch–which stars the always-charming David Tennant and newly-minted Golden Globe winner Olivia Colman as detectives in a tiny seaside town trying to solve the murder of a child–is one of the most compelling dramas to hit your TV screen in years. While Americans were largely unaware of it when it aired on BBC America, its popularity in England was unprecedented–and led to a phenomenon known as “The Broadchurch Effect.” (You can stream the first two seasons on Netflix, and the third series will premiere on BBC America this year.)
Beyond those two standouts, there’s Luther, in which Idris Elba does that badass-with-a-heart thing that only Idris Elba can do, falls into a similar category as Broadchurch, and Whitechapel, which is based on the idea that history–including crime history–is bound to repeat itself. (The premise works best in the first season, in which someone is attempting to recreate Jack the Ripper’s crimes, but strong writing and a likeable cast carry it through the post-Ripper seasons.) And if you want to witness Watson in a completely different light–and with a North Dakota accent, no less–Noah Hawley’s small-screen adaptation of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning 1996 film Fargo is one-of-a-kind prestige television.