I haven’t seen the British crime drama Luther for which Idris Elba just won a Golden Globe but its premise and creator Neil Cross admitting he took inspiration from Sherlock Holmes make it part of a most interesting trend in current television: the return of the Great Detective.
It’s fair to say that the concept hadn’t been very popular in the last decades, mostly because television’s focus had increasingly moved away from the individual. Whereas most crime shows from the 50’s to the 70’s had been built around a single, often eponymous, character, ensemble police procedurals had dominated the airwaves in the 80s and 90s. The motto was realism, with cops being shown as everyday, flawed people working as a team to solve « regular » cases. The often impersonal titles of those shows – Hill Street Blues, Law & Order, NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Killing Streets or Brooklyn South – reflected that new direction.
Then came a new century and all of a sudden everything changed. Adrian Monk, Robert Goren, Charlie Crews, Brenda Leigh Johnson, Shawn Spencer or Richard Castle – to name just a few – returned the eccentric detective with golden little grey cells to the small screen. Even a non-mystery show like House, M.D. featured a protagonist explicitly modelled after Sherlock Holmes. This ongoing phenomenon is all the more interesting as the Great Detective (for lack of a better term) has scarcely been seen on print recently and its revival as of now remains confined to television. It probably has a lot to do with practical concerns: obviously it is easier to create and manage a show with a single protagonist than an ensemble; also, the modern Great Detective almost always comes with the quasi-contractual angst and personal problems. But it’s still good news to the traditional mystery fan as it suggests the genre keeps its appeal and can adapt to the times; it also suggests than not all revolutions (and the rise of the ensemble, modular procedural was undoubtedly one) are irreversible.