This week's premiere of Netflix's The Irregulars is a continuation of one of contemporary fiction's most venerated stories. Based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Irregulars follows a group of London teens working to solve crimes in Victorian England under the employ of Dr. Watson while Sherlock Holmes, the great and famous detective, gets all the credit for their work.
The Irregulars aren't a new concept within the universe of Sherlock Holmes fiction. The "Baker Street Irregulars" appeared in two of Doyle's Holmes novels and one short story, starting with A Study in Scarlet in 1887. And of course Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are some of the most frequently occurring characters in film and TV. The Irregulars carries on a long tradition that never seems to leave TV for very long.
TV's very first Sherlock Holmes aired as a miniseries on the BBC in 1951. Featuring star of stage and radio Alan Wheatley as Sherlock Holmes and Raymond Francis as Dr. Watson, the six-episode series adapted several Doyle stories, including "A Scandal in Bohemia," "The Adventure of the Dying Detective," and "The Red-Headed League."
The modern run of Sherlock Holmes TV shows probably didn't start because of the episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Data (Brent Spiner) and LaForge (LeVar Burton) indulged in their Holmes-and-Watson fanfic on the Enterprise holodeck, but it was a fantastic example of the malleability of the Holmes and Watson stories to adapt to all sorts of genres, even sci-fi space adventures. In the episodes "Elementary, Dear Data" and "Ship in a Bottle," Data and LaForge, as Holmes and Watson, had to deal with a holodeck-created Professor Moriarty.
The BBC was back at it again with a Sherlock Holmes TV series in 1965, starring Douglas Wilmer and then Peter Cushing (forever immortalized in modern pop culture as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars) as Holmes, with Nigel Stock as Dr. Watson. The series aired 29 episodes from 1965-1968, including a two-part "Hound of the Baskervilles" in Season 2.
Sherlock Holmes and the Baker Street Irregulars was a 1997 BBC production starring Jonathan Pryce — yes, one of the two titular Two Popes — along with Anna Chancellor as Irene Adler, and a very young Aaron Taylor-Johnson as one of the Irregulars.
The high-water mark for Sherlock Holmes TV adaptations has almost certainly been the 2010 series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes, Martin Freeman as Watson, and Andrew Scott as Moriarty. Creator Steven Moffat's reconception of the world's greatest detective as a socially awkward, nicotine-patch-wearing, interior genius was a huge critical success and an Emmy-winner, making the 123 year-old Holmes as hot a pop-cultural figure as he'd ever been.
In 2012, CBS got in on the Sherlock Holmes action with Elementary, casting Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes — this time as a recovering drug addict — and gender-swapping the John Watson character to Joan Watson, played by Lucy Liu. The show ran for seven seasons and 154 episodes, including one post-Super Bowl lead-out episode.
This past year, Netflix cast their in-house superstar Millie Bobby Brown (Stranger Things) as the younger sister of Sherlock Holmes in their film Enola Holmes. With Henry Cavill as big brother Sherlock, Enola uses the smarts and observational skills that run in the family — as well as a rebellious streak that's all her own — to help track down their disappeared mother.
Which brings us back to The Irregulars, a show that Netflix clearly hopes will be the next heir to TV's Sherlock throne. Henry Lloyd-Hughes plays Holmes this time around, with Royce Pierreson as Watson. Da 5 Bloods star Clarke Peters plays Linen Man, and as the teenage Irregulars are McKell David, Thaddea Graham, Harrison Osterfield, Jojo Macari, and Darci Shaw. As with the other modern-day Holmes adaptations, this one is taking its fair share of liberties with the traditional Doyle tales. There's a supernatural twist at work in The Irregulars, with the kids possessing strange powers, a sinister dark magic afoot, and Holmes as an eccentric recluse.
The Irregulars surely won't be TV's last Sherlock Holmes adaptation, but it stands a chance of being the strangest in a long while. For an institution that's been running for almost 125 years, that's saying something.
Netflix drops the complete first season of The Irregulars Friday March 26th.
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: The Irregulars, Netflix, Elementary, Sherlock