The new BBC series Sherlock is terrific fun, but its acedically bored main character is so ill-mannered that he bears little resemblance to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective. This devolution reveals more about our own era than it does about Sherlock Holmes.
Before I criticize the characterization let me just say that many other aspects of this series' updating have been delightful. The pacing is brisk, the reliance on technology fascinating (Watson's chronicle, for example, has been moved to a blog, and Sherlock is never without his mobile phone). And I was of course relieved that A Study in Pink, the series opener based on Conan Doyle's inaugural novel A Study in Scarlet, retained all the plot twists of the original without the anti-Mormon propaganda.
In Conan Doyle's stories, Sherlock Holmes had many flaws: he was driven, untidy, and logical to a fault. He was arrogant at times, yes, and somewhat vain. He may have suffered from bipolar tendencies, was a little too loose with verboten substances, and seemed to be secretly terrified of women.
But he was not cruel. He was rarely even rude.
The BBC's contemporary Sherlock is entirely unfazed when his landlady has been beaten and tied up. He rescues her but expresses no concern about her welfare and disagrees with Watson about her needing a rest. This Sherlock openly ridicules a woman at his own Christmas party, noticing by the tiniest detail of her clothing and demeanor that she is aiming to impress some man but not realizing that he's the one who has sparked her interest. And he seems to barely tolerate Watson's presence.
This Sherlock is constantly bored and repeatedly tells people that they, and their stories, are boring. He craves stimulation, even if that means that someone is about to get murdered. Anything so he can enjoy the intellectual thrill of the chase.
The BBC's Sherlock Holmes has abandoned hero status and become an antihero, that morally ambiguous character that has risen to TV prominence in recent years (Jack Bauer, Dexter, Dr. House, Spike, etc.). The most disturbing thing about this is that he has everything in common with his archnemesis, Moriarty. Moriarty in this series is wildly unpredictable and downright psychotic, whereas in the books Moriarty's complexity lay in his unfailing calm.
Call me old-fashioned, but it would be marvelous to see a bit of Holmes's humanity return to 221B Baker Street.