Netflix’s “Irregulars” fails in almost innumerable ways

Written By Amanda Andrews, Editor Elect

0.5 Globes out of 5

 

Sherlock Holmes is one of those characters that everyone knows—even if they have never touched a single short story or novel written by his original inventor, Arthur Conan Doyle. 

The tales of the Victorian detective and his loyal partner and chronicler, Dr. John Watson, have spawned hundreds if not thousands of adaptations for over a century. The latest is Netflix’s “The Irregulars,” which debuted on the platform on March 26. Despite a few concepts with potential,  “The Irregulars” is a mess of an eight-episode series that is probably one of the worst adaptations of the Holmesian source material in recent memory.  

Let’s start with some context. In Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories, Sherlock Holmes sometimes relies on an informal group of impoverished boys called “the Baker Street Irregulars” to collect information for a handful of his cases, whom he compensates for their efforts. This particular aspect of the novels and short stories is reflective of a time in which child labor was a common reality in Great Britain. This exploitation of children has often been an overlooked flaw of Sherlock Holmes, and, in 2018, Netflix announced plans to produce “The Irregulars,” with the idea that the street urchins are the actual crime-solving masterminds while  Holmes steals the credit for their successes.

It’s a very original premise, and, had that been the actual focus the show went for, it likely would have been a fascinating deconstruction of the beloved detective and some of his worste traits. Instead, “The Irregulars” decided to take a hard turn in the supernatural direction, following an extremely basic monster-of-the-week plot riddledridden with inconsistencies and, even more bizarrely, making Holmes and Watson committed occultists while simultaneously botching their core characterizations. 

Warning: there are some major spoilers ahead. 

The show essentially opens with a slice of life look at the life of the Irregulars, led by Bea (Thaddea Graham) and made up of her sister Jessie (Darci Shaw) and friends Billy (Jojo Macari) and Spike (McKell David). The down-on-their-luck group of friends is struggling to make rent after most of them left the workhouse, an institution that abused them as child laborers. There is the added pressure of Jessie’s apparent issues with psychosis, which are quickly revealed in the first episode to actually be latent psychic powers. 

In the midst of this, a storyline completely out of left-field introduces hemophiliac Prince Leopold (Harrison Osterfield), based on the very real, not fictional son of Queen Victoria: Prince Leopold, Duke of Albany. After seeing the Irregulars on a brief trip into London, Leopold decides he’s attracted to Bea and sneaks out of the restrictive palace where he lives, pretends to be a poor boy named Leo, and somehow finds and befriends Bea, joining the rag-tag group. This arc is just as absurd as it sounds. 

On top of all of that happening in the first episode, Bea is approached by a mysterious man who the children later find out is Dr. John Watson (Royce Pierreson). Watson demands that Bea and her friends look into a case of disappearing infants for him and his business partner, who the audience knows to be Sherlock Holmes, in exchange for payment. 

As the Irregulars investigate, they discover very early on that this is no ordinary criminal case, with the suspect using otherworldly powers. The children work together and rely on Jessie’s own abilities to save the day, and Watson tells Bea that he sought them out because he knew Jessie had powers that could stop “the darkness that came to London.” People who are committing brutal, criminal acts using supernatural powers and Watson contracting the children to solve the crimes becomes the basic setup for the show.

This show has a mind-boggling amount of issues, not the least of which is that the world of Sherlock Holmes, a defining piece in the world of science fiction literature, never works when combined with magic or the supernatural. The show’s creator, Tom Bidwell, said that this fusion was an homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s obsession late in life with spiritualism and added that to his original concept of the Irregulars as the true masterminds. 

This crossover of ideas, however, is actually the source of the most incongruity of the entire show. The viewers can’t focus on the horrific conditions the children live in because they’re being chased after by flesh-eating birds. There was real danger Arthur Conan Doyle’s Baker Street Irregulars faced when out on a case. They were tracking murderers, criminal gangs and more. The world of Victorian London for those living in poverty was already appalling enough, and the show’s supernatural elements—which are often poorly animated and rip-offs of overused horror tropes—cheapen the viewers’ connection to this world and to the characters struggling in it. 

This story also feels like it fundamentally does not understand the Victorian setting, if the music choice is any indication. The scenes are either underscored by standard orchestral tracks or pop songs from artists like Billie Eilish. That combination of pop and orchestra works for shows set in the modern day, but it feels totally out of place in a world firmly set in the past. 

Boring supernatural premise and bizarre music choice aside, the show’s biggest problems lie in its portrayals of the original characters from Arthur Conan Doyle’s universe. 

Pierreson’s Watson is uncharacteristically cold, calculating, intimidating and outright threatening at times. By the sixth episode, the show makes him out to be the primary antagonist before randomly pivoting the bad guy label to another character. I do appreciate that Pierreson’s Watson is intelligent, but, oddly enough, his depiction bears a stronger resemblance to Holmes and his mercurial moods. Plus, there’s the awkward disconnect that he’s recruiting the Irregulars, not Holmes. Let me put it this way: if he didn’t have the name John Watson, I wouldn’t have had a clue that the character was supposed to be based on Conan Doyle’s Watson. 

And, for a show that was inspired by Sherlock Holmes, there is a noticeable absence of him. Holmes, played by Henry Lloyd-Hughes, doesn’t have any spoken lines until the fifth episode out of the eight total. Maybe this is due to Lloyd-Hughes’ ultimately lackluster performance. His overall delivery seems like he’s trying to impersonate Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes and Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow at the same time. 

But maybe his performance is so awful because he was given truly horrendous material to work with. Lloyd-Hughes’ Holmes is reduced to a drug addict who has essentially lost all his detective skills in 15 years. He mourns the show’s invented love interest for him with an out-of-character, single-minded focus—so much so that he’s warped to be a character totally at odds with Sherlock Holmes’ fundamental characterization.

The children themselves are all inventions of the show, but, with the exception of Bea, none of them are all that innovative, embodying very tired tropes from young adult fiction writing. 

As you can probably imagine, between the kids solving the supernatural crimes, dealing with a nauseating love triangle, and discovering more about their backstories, there are only a handful of scenes shared between this show’s Watson and Holmes. This doesn’t stop the show from having Watson drop a historic confession in the penultimate episode: he’s in love with Sherlock Holmes. 

Before you get excited about “The Irregulars” confirming that their John Watson is a queer man, the narrative explicitly blames Watson’s love of Holmes for killing Holmes’ female love interest, and Watson gets told after his confession that “a man like you isn’t capable of love.” 

Homophobia is sadly just one of many problems in how “The Irregulars” treats a good portion of its characters who aren’t white, male and straight. Despite “The Irregulars” having a diverse cast, with Chinese-born Northern Irish actress Thaddea Graham headlining the show, the show’s villains—commonly referred to as “monsters”—are disproportionately women and people of color. Spike, who is portrayed by a Black actor, is the only Irregular who does not get his own story arc. And Watson, who is coded as a villain throughout most of the show, is also Black. 

The only redeeming part of this show for me is Thaddea Graham’s performance. Even with a terrible script, she delivers a powerful performance consistently, and I wouldn’t have been able to finish “The Irregulars” otherwise. 

So, to cap off this review, I’d like to do what I’ve seen every other news outlet do when reviewing “The Irregulars” and recommend you much more enjoyable Sherlock Holmes adaptations to watch. 

1. The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – This film directed by legendary director Billy Wilder is still regarded as one of the best, even 50 years after its original release. Wilder also was one of the first to toy with the idea of unrequited love between Sherlock Holmes and John Watson, except that Holmes was the one in love with Watson in this version. All of this had to be implied through subtext due to the time in which it was produced, the Conan Doyle’s estate involvement in the project and the legacy of the restrictive Hays Code. 

2. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1984-1994) – The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is, without a doubt, the most faithful depiction of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories. With a masterful performance from Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, the TV series ran for 10 years and garnered a dedicated following of fans. Most of the episodes are available for free on YouTube.

3. Sherlock Holmes (2009) & Game of Shadows (2012) – I know what you’re thinking: really, the Robert Downey Jr. movies? I promise that they deserve far more credit than they received when they were released. These films are funny, quick-paced and action-packed. If you find the deduction process somewhat boring, this is the Sherlock Holmes adaptation for you. Also, Jude Law’s Watson, while clever, resembles the character much more. 

4. Sherlock Holmes and the Adventure of the Furtive Festivity (2018) – How could I forget Point Park’s own Sherlock Holmes adaptation? This delightful short film directed by alumna Mina Hoffman explores John Watson trying to keep a surprise birthday party secret from his partner, Sherlock Holmes. It may sound boring, but it is honestly adorable and really endearing.