With so many new and diverse takes on Sherlock Holmes delivered over the years (after all, he is the most adapted fictional character of all time), Netflix’s new take on the famous sleuth goes for broke with not one but two revisionist takes on Arthur Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, plunging him into a fantasy world while also sidelining him in favour of side-characters from the original stories.
Specifically, The Irregulars (created by My Mad Fat Diary’s Tom Bidwell) follows a gang of homeless teenagers hired by Doctor Watson (Royce Pierreson) to investigate strange crimes while Sherlock Holmes is indisposed. Simultaneously, this reframing of the story is accompanied by a supernatural reimagining of Holmes’ Victorian playground, drawing from Conan Doyle’s well-documented interest in the fantastic (and some of his supernatural short stories) in a contrast to the rational mind of his great detective.
The finished effect is something of a mixed bag, falling somewhere between Ripper Street and The X-Files as our heroes tackle demonic forces, super-powered villains and occult magic while also existing in a fairly gritty vision of late-1800s London.
The fact that each episode boasts a new foe and self-contained story (in other words, a monster-of-the-week) is a welcome retro styling, and there are some solid performances. But it sometimes feels like The Irregulars is pulled in different directions by its two central concepts, while also surrendering its more interesting one-off stories to a slightly bland “end of the world” story by the conclusion. Sometimes, this series is great, escapist fun. Sometimes, it’s a bit of a muddle.
Initially, though, things seem quite simple. We’re introduced at the start to our young, precocious heroes Bea and Jessie (Thaddea Graham and Darci Shaw), two orphans who now eke out a living in a spacious basement along with their friends Spike (McKell David) and Billy (Jojo Macari).
But no sooner have we gotten used to their fairly sanitised experiences of the Victorian underclass than we’re introduced to Pierreson’s menacing Dr Watson, who enlists the gang (and their posh new friend Leopald, secretly one of Queen Victoria’s younger sons on the run from the palace) to investigate a series of supernatural mysteries for his unnamed “business partner.”
Of course, this invisible character is none other than Holmes himself, played by The Inbetweeners’ Henry Lloyd-Hughes – but it’s no spoiler to say that this take on Sherlock is a background figure (at least to begin with), remaining entirely absent for a good chunk of the series before taking a more important role towards the end.
Instead, we’re left to focus on the kids themselves, a revamp of the rosy-cheeked “Baker Street Irregulars” created by Conan Doyle as Holmes’ street-level helpers with significantly more trauma (and sadly, without the inclusion of the books’ only named group member Wiggins. #Justice4Wiggins). Played by a crew of fresh-faced young actors (you may recognise Macari from Sex Education or Shaw from The Bay) they’re a largely appealing bunch who boast different sets of skills, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles style, that help them work together to take out these new monsters terrorising London.
Bea’s the leader, Jessie has some psychic abilities, Billy’s a bit of a bruiser (like Raphael, he’s cool but rude) and Spike has a nifty habit for housebreaking, while Leopold has the power of books and general knowledge at his disposal after years of a top-class education. Together they use their talents to ably drift through various mysteries, sometimes based on mythology – a dark take on the tooth fairy – or crime tropes, including a country-house murder with a twist.
The ingenuity of these “cases” is The Irregulars at its best, and it’s a shame they don’t last longer – instead, as the series approaches its finale it gets caught up in the central mysteries about Sherlock, his backstory with Watson and other friends and the interdimensional “Rip” causing all this magic to come to life (not to be confused with Torchwood’s “Rift”), leaving behind the week-by-week fun.
This serialisation isn’t a problem exactly – some of the flashbacks to Sherlock and Watson’s younger days are interesting, and hint at another interesting riff on the books as the great detective becomes disillusioned with his career – but with just eight episodes to work with it does detract from The Irregulars’ stronger weekly stories, especially as we approach the endgame.
In a way, while I was watching the Irregulars I kept wondering if the disparate ideas within might not have worked better as separate adaptations. A gritty take based on the Baker Street Irregulars with Dr Watson as their paymaster and potential villain? Brilliant. A story that reimagines Sherlock Holmes as a master of the mystic arts (with apologies to Benedict Cumberbatch) whose early cases of murders and missing jewels are changed to him struggling against dark magic? I’d watch that too.
But put both of those ideas together, and it almost feels like overkill. The Irregulars has a lot of good qualities and some fun ideas, but as a whole it doesn’t quite mesh. Clearly, this particular case was a tough one to crack.