‘The Irregulars’: Sherlock Holmes’ Multicultural Street Helpers

Netflix’s dark adult-themed paranormal mystery series expands the Holmesverse again

Who doesn’t need even more Sherlock Holmes? The Irregulars is for you if you’ve ever wondered about the secret lives of the orphan kids who help the consulting detective. This new Netflix streaming series follows the street urchins from the Holmes stories in a Victorian-era London, which faces supernatural threats. Their leader is Bea (Thaddea Graham), an Anglo-Asian teenage girl whose younger sister, Jessie (Darci Shaw), possesses paranormal abilities. Dr. Watson (Royce Pierreson), a Black Briton whose famous roommate makes only cameos until the show reveals he has a prior relationship to the girls, recruits them.

The Irregulars are, in fact, regulars. They are “street urchins” conventionally led by Wiggins, whom Holmes calls upon for intelligence on whatever is happening throughout London that might transgress polite norms. When Arthur Conan Doyle introduces them in the novel A Study in Scarlet, he refers to them by a term that today’s society would frown upon: “street Arabs,” intended to imply they are nomads.

The point is they are everywhere. Yet society disregards them. They became the namesake of the primary organization celebrating all things Sherlockian, the Baker Street Irregulars. The concept of such an underground network continues to evolve: among their descendants are the Bowery King’s “Soup Kitchen” of the John Wick movie franchise.

Although the eight episodes Netflix offers in this run stand on their own as mysteries, it establishes a through line early. Bea and Jessie lost their mother (for those who are wondering, they are apparently half-sisters, the former having an absent Asian father). Watson has observed they might be able to play a role in his exploits. He retains them to investigate a set of abducted babies and they soon meet unnatural phenomenon. The title of chapter one, “An Unkindness in London,” turns out to be an avian pun. Other installments have a tooth fairy who relieves children and adults alike of all their molars and incisors; a conspiracy of paranormal elites; and a distaff Doctor Frankenstein.

Sharing any further details would spoil the surprises. A hemophiliac of high birth joins The Irregulars. Mrs. Hudson the landlady and Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard are, like everyone else, funhouse mirror reflections of their usual selves. Sherlock himself (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), when he finally shows up, will not be everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. At one point, he deduces what he is drinking, identifying the wrong type of tea, a mistake of narcissism.

For those who are aware of what they are getting themselves into, I highly recommend the Irregulars. This is a mash-up of the Robert Downey, Jr.-Jude Law, steampunk Holmes and Watson with the cult classic Kolchak Night Stalker program. The ending of the show is open. Netflix has already renewed it.

The ever-expanding Holmes-verse and troubling ret-cons

The creative license taken with Sherlock and the other canonical characters is not unusual. Netflix’s own Enola Holmes is only another instantiation, following the respective Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller modern dress versions. In various pastiches, Holmes has been turned into a bug in a children’s book, for example, and he has been a buffoon relying on a smarter sidekick on screen in Without a Clue. He has been a villain as well, in the Lovecraft Cthulu mythology, and as the historical Jack the Ripper. He also has been delusional in 1970s New York City, with a female Watson in They Might Be Giants.

The occult trappings have their own antecedents, despite Holmes insisting on logic and facts. The creator of this most portrayed human character, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was famously fascinated by spiritualism, gulled by fake pixie photos.

But it’s hard to reconcile some discrepancies in the show. The Irregulars are too well scrubbed to have spent much time on the streets, too fresh to have emerged from the workhouse, with accents too posh for their origins, and so on. The language is anachronistic, from the cursing to the colloquialisms to the technical terms. We didn’t use the word “clone” to describe human beings until Neo-Darwinist J.B.S. Haldane suggested it 75 years after the era of this depiction. The show has retconned racial diversity, and deleted prejudice—and tobacco use.

This new series is not the only one with a more troubling edition of the Irregulars. In the House of Silk, a novel authorized by the Conan Doyle Estate, they appear prominently. A new recruit is murdered, and the original case leads to another thriller, in a vein that could not earn a PG rating.

That prompts the only warning that I need to offer: the Irregulars are not at all like Scooby Doo and Mystery Incorporated. The tone is dark, the themes darker. An adult can binge this program with interest and enjoyment. A sensitive child will be traumatized by the abiding sense of longing and the inevitability of loss. The show introduces sex work and homoeroticism  respectfully and with subtlety. It does not portray religious orders positively. The producer of the Irregulars, Tom Bidwell, has shocked kids before. He produced the 2018 Watership Down remake, with bunnies facing apocalypse in all manner of CGI gore.

The detective’s addiction has more devastating consequences than ever. The Seven Percent Solution, an acclaimed movie that in its title indicated the importance of narcotics, is nothing compared to this realism of vomit on display and the child neglect that is intense even in a brief allusion.

Watson utters a line that applies to the whole mythology: Sherlock Holmes is the creation of two men. Without Watson, there would be no Holmes. By this account, however, without the Irregulars, there would be neither Watson nor Holmes. This show finally gives The Irregulars their due.

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Frank Wu

Frank H. Wu is a law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and the President Designate of Queens College. He wrote Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

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