Review: The Irregulars (Netflix)

I started watching this series a while back but just for reasons of life, work and commuting, I didn’t finish it quickly despite it being only eight episodes long. I’ll say upfront that I enjoyed it because the show has so many quirks and issues and aspects that may well put people off that in explaining it (or even just watching episode 1) I can imagine it putting people off.

From the title and the description of the show, you might expect it to be about the side-characters from the Sherlock Holmes stories known as the Baker Street Irregulars (the street kids that Holmes employs as informers) but with a supernatural twist. It really isn’t and that framing doesn’t do it many favours. Likewise, despite all the trappings, the show really isn’t set in Victorian London (departing from that setting in good ways, bad ways and lazy ways).

Put all that aside if those expectations will trip you up. It is a fantasy London and it’s not a specific year (you could pin it to 1870 for a specific historical reason but that way lies madness). It’s Victorian as a setting, not as a time period and hence Dickens-like in places and Sherlock Holmes adaptations in other places. It doesn’t have the technology aspect to call it SteamPunk but closer to that vibe than a period drama.

The good departure from historical accuracy is that it applies diverse casting to all characters at all levels of society. So the ethnic make-up of the casting reflects modern Britain including members of the gentry. The up side of that is the excellent casting of Royce Pierreson as Doctor Watson, who gets an interesting character arc, appearing initially as a cold and sinister figure in the lives of a set of older teenagers/young adult living rough in (not exactly) Victorian London.

The downside is that while the show (particularly in the earlier monster-of-the-week) episode tries to deal with questions of inequality, abuse of power and exploitation, it can’t really examine racism. For example, in the second episode where some very spooky thing is stealing children’s teeth the eventual target of the supernatural plot is the Duke of Winchester. The Duke, as a major landowner, did things that led to a family tragedy. The Duke in this case is played by Ghanaian actor, Patrice Naiambana (https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0619628/?ref_=ttfc_fc_cl_t20 ) and that is clever and subversive casting but it means a few punches are pulled in a compelling story of supernatural revenge. It’s a trade-off and frankly, subverting expectations of race in a historical drama is a reasonable exchange in context for a story that could have been harder hitting in other ways. Not every story needs to examine racial-injustice.

More odd, given the setting, is the odd way that social class behaves in the show. It’s definitely there but it has a weird superficiality to it. Hard to describe without you watching it but again, it feels like a calculated effort to put the show into a Victorian setting but one where characters can move more easily between settings. The plot needs a rag-tag group of street kids to attend a gathering of an elite secret society at a country manor? Well, it will find a way round that and why not?

At this point, I can see I’m making it sound like a kind of sanitised, romantic or bowdlerised version of Victoriana. It really isn’t. It is often gory and brutal, uses frank language about sex and frequently genuinely spooky. It is pitched at teenagers but in the sense of more ‘mature’ content in some ways but still having the character of convention-breaking children’s television. Sort of Doctor Who-like but with more swearing.

So a fantasy, alternate-universe Victorian London that is stuck in a generic Victorian time period (e.g. flashbacks to 10 years early looks like the same time period) with two incidental characters that if they had not called them Holmes and Watson then you might think “these characters occupy a sort of Holmes and Watson space”. Accept that and it’s a fun show with a great cast and some really interesting ideas about grief and love gone awry.

By the end, I think the creators of the show mainly made good decisions about these choices. It packs a lot in and rather than try to make everything work, it simplifies the edges so that the show can be its own thing. Maybe…if they had cast an older Holmes and Watson and set it in Edwardian times or in 1900, that could have also been interesting. Oddly, a key character is Queen Victoria’s youngest son Leopold which places a very specific historical point into the show (hence why I said, the setting is 1870), although character-wise he could have just been a fictional aristocratic teenager who has been sequestered away because of ill health.

Spooky and charming.

10 thoughts on “Review: The Irregulars (Netflix)

  1. I watched the first couple of episodes a few weeks back and thought they were okay…but I haven’t gone back to it. Instead I’ve been watching MasterChef, Death Comes to Pemberly, Inspector Montablano and the Great British Sewing Bee.

    Should I go back to it? Is there more to the show than is seen in the two episodes I’ve seen?

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  2. My Holmes-loving daughter, my spouse and I watched the first 2 episodes, and bailed at that point, mostly because of the gap between the show and the Holmes canon. Also, some of the characters were kind of annoying. Perhaps that was a mistake, but our expectations going in probably influenced the decision.

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  3. I feel basically the same as you about this I think, Cam. Adding Holmes & Watson instead of just characters who fill that kind of space was a mistake, as it gives people a wildly different set of expectations from what’s actually in the show. Still I think there’s a core of good ideas

    FWIW while I’m sure the diverse casting really grates on a certain type of person, and it might be a bit exaggerated(?) this was also Britain and its capital at the height of its globe-spanning empire. Immigration of one sort or another was definitely occurring.

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    1. *A core of good ideas there and a story that’s worth following, once you’re past the fact that it’s very much not a Holmes & Watson story.

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  4. I think it’s a odd how many Sherlock Holmes-based stories turn to the paranormal when the original stories are so distinctly rational. There’s often a suggestion of a supernatural solution in the beginning, but Holmes always dismisses those, applies his intellect to the problem, and finds a completely non-supernatural explanation for the events.
    (I haven’t seen this one, just a general comment.)

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  5. Watched this on your recommendation and am enjoying it so far, even though anachronisms usually drive me up the wall. (Spouse: Yes, he said “freaking out.” Don’t worry about it.). You said the diverse cast means they can’t examine racism, and that’s true, but at one point one of the kids says to a kid who dislikes the upper class, “You’re racist about posh people.” But if there’s no racism (so far, anyway — I’m only on episode 2) what does that even mean??? And I’m doing this all the time. And yet, as I said, I still like it.

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  6. Made the first episode part of my TV viewing while recovering from the vaccine. Very annoyed by anachronisms like “you should be making sweet, sweet love.” Might watch another episode eventually.

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