Let the movies have Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock Holmes.
PBS’s “Masterpiece: Mystery!” has a new Sherlock of its own: the fantastically named actor Benedict Cumberbatch. He debuts as the new Sherlock Sunday night at 9 p.m. in “A Study in Pink,” the first of three “Sherlock” episodes airing in this time slot through Nov. 7.
Cumberbatch’s Sherlock has a vampiric look by way of Mick Jagger. He’s a self-absorbed, suffer-no-fools Sherlock with a touch of hipster style.
“Serial killers!” he exclaims with glee as the police come to him to request help on a case. “There’s always something to look forward to. I love it!”
“A Study in Pink” serves as an origins story that depicts the meeting of Sherlock and Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman, Britain’s “The Office”). The new series is written and produced by Steven Moffat (“Doctor Who”) and Mark Gatiss (“The League of Gentlemen”), and it is hugely entertaining. Viewers who dismiss PBS programs as boring or stuffy risk embarrassment if someone should use “Sherlock” as defense Exhibit A.
In this iteration, Watson is a former army doctor who was wounded during service in Afghanistan. He proclaims that “nothing ever happens to me” — just before meeting Sherlock, who turns his world upside down.
When Sherlock meets Watson, he rattles off all these details about the doctor’s personality derived by Sherlock’s keen observational skills. When Sherlock puts these skills to work, words representing his observations materialize on screen and then disappear.
The plot of the premiere finds a string of serial suicides, which, of course, turn out to be murders. Through the course of his investigation, viewers get a sense of just how odd this Sherlock is. He applies three nicotine patches to his arm to help him think. His monologues often bring to mind serial killer Dexter Morgan of Showtime’s “Dexter.” And his lack of social skills and decorum is both astounding and used to strong comic effect.
“You’re an idiot,” he tells Watson before realizing Watson may be hurt by this appraisal. “No, no, don’t mind that. Practically everyone is.”
This Sherlock’s sexual identity, like Sheldon (Jim Parsons) on “Big Bang Theory,” remains nebulous. Watson is mistaken for Sherlock’s husband several times — Watson is straight — and Sherlock never clarifies his own attractions, saying only that he is married to his work.
Tonight’s premiere has a zippy energy that can be attributed to the writing and Cumberbatch’s riveting, gonzo performance. He plays Sherlock as authoritative and arrogant but also with a hint of excited madness that makes for an engrossing new take on this classic character.