So the long awaited series three is at an end. The most patient and loyal Holmes’ fans having waited two years for just four and a half hours of television. It hardly seems worth the bother. There were even a few jokes about it at the fans expense. Still, let’s put the blame on Peter Jackson and take Stephen Moffat’s word for it that filming for the fourth series is imminently under way. This time we might only have to wait until Christmas.
Two years was undoubtedly far too long for the series to stew. In this day and age popularity is dependent on immediacy; leave the kiddies for too long and they’ll find something else to entertain them. Sherlock seems to be immune to this particular strain of ADD however, as evidenced by the twelve million strong viewership. Rather it’s been far too long for Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss to stew on the property. They seem to have had an abundance of new ideas, but not the heart to say no to any of them.
Its refreshing to see writers so willing to discard a tried and tested formula, to branch out into new ideas and seek new mechanics and techniques to tell stories. But remember, this show is notorious for only having three episodes per series. That means that each one is precious. Bad episodes stand out here, more so than in any other show on television. To take such hard left turns on the first two programs in a series people have waited two years for, with the knowledge they only have one to go? You are risking the loyalty of the people who have proven themselves to be the most loyal TV fans of the 21st century. Many of whom believed the sacrifices the plot made in the name of experimentation, were not worth it to tell such weak and unsatisfying stories.
The first episode I felt was more egregious than the second, unlike many of my contemporaries and twitter buddies. The fact that it took so long for the central mystery to even take hold of the plot was particularly annoying. Especially if you’re one of those who believe the series is at its best when being a detective show and not trying to be a soap opera with a doctorate. Sherlock works best when the relationship between its two leads gives substance and texture to the tales of intrigue; what we have here is a tale of intrigue as a platform for a prolonged counselling session.
But for me it was the endless fan baiting that really made this episode a shambles. Take the explanation of Sherlock’s survival in The Reichenbach Fall for instance. The constant second guessing, teasing us with multiple possibilities and right at the very end, just when you think you have the definite solution, they cannot resist putting it in doubt, just to wind up Tumblr. There was an air of superiority to it, an intoxication of power motivating these acts of viewer manipulation. And the way it portrays its own fans smacks of hubris.
It was also somewhat cocky in the self-assuredness of its own brand. One of the first things Sherlock does is immediately call for his Milford coat, inexplicably escorted halfway across the continent (probably in its own private jet) and handled with the reverence of Indiana Jones’ hat. It sets a tone of smugness caused by the success of a deeply ambitious and risky program. Sherlock, it seems, is a victim of its own triumph. Many of the plot turns have the same sense of self satisfaction. The writers seem gleeful in their attempts at pulling the rug out from under the audience, creating criss-crossing narrative turns filled with red herrings and blindsiding you with cleverer than thou, late game twists. All at the expense of the clarity and integrity of the plot
That unfortunate trend continued in the next episode. In The Sign of Three Sherlock has to give a best man’s speech, the first part of which is one of the best and most heartfelt pieces of writing the show has ever produced. Sherlock gives an emotionally controlled, wise and typically rational explanation as to why John is so important to him, and how he believes John has saved his soul. Unfortunately part two isn’t so restrained. As part of the speech we are treated to some cases that Sherlock has dealt with in the past, one of which was a failure. Finally, some humility, some weakness to add a bit of depth to a character in danger of disappearing into the realm of caricature.
Alas it was not to be. The stories, once cobbled together, held the key to a murder attempt that would have taken place on that very night, at Mary and John Watson’s wedding reception. Yes that’s right, someone trying to kill a guest at the wedding reception where the country’s foremost crime fighter is best man. And the key to catching him just so happened to be hidden in the cases Sherlock chose to talk about that very evening. Well what an unbelievable coincidence. Mycroft would have you believe there is no such thing as coincidences, that the universe is rarely so lazy. Moffat and Gatiss it seems, are far too slick.
Yes it’s true you have always been able to drive a bus through Sherlock’s plot holes. But in this series you could drive a whole platoon of Panzer Tanks through them. Perhaps I’ve been acclimatised to the writers masking techniques, or perhaps they’ve lost perspective and now need someone to rein in their fanciful stories.
Indeed reining it in might be sound advice on all fronts. Since the inception of the show, there has always been a distinctive style and trademarked wit. These elements of the show have only grown since the first series. Indeed the humour has become so prevalent in recent episodes, it’s taken a turn for the slapstick. It is funnier though. I find myself laughing a lot more in this series than in any other. But should I be laughing this much in a Sherlock episode? Is this really the place for it?
The other element that seems to be taking over the show is style creep. That signature directorial style that once gave Sherlock its distinctive look, now seems to be garishly out of control. Those graphics that were so clever back in 2010, that gave us an insight into how Sherlock’s mind works, are now becoming characters of their own. Several times this series, white, AF Generation Z lettering has exploded onto the screen, making it crowded, cluttered and ugly. Also, they’ve started using more whip pans than Edgar Wright. It’s dizzying.
Even Sherlock’s Mind Palace is becoming a more regular location than 22 1B Baker Street. Used to horrific effect in His Last Vow, it becomes the scene for the most melodramatic moment and stylistically gaudy in all of the series. Sherlock having just been shot by John’s wife (I did say spoilers at the top) Sherlock must delve into the deepest recesses of his mind palace to find the information that will save his life. So begins a journey that lasts too long, has too many gimmicks (including a young Sherlock and a teasing Moriarty cameo) and contains some of Cumberbatch’s hammiest acting. While trying to simulate the panic and confusion a gunshot might cause, Moffat only manages to create the kind of confusion you get when seeing talented people do something so misguided.
Its hard to find positive discussion points for this series. Oh there are plenty of things still right about it, but nothing that really provokes genuine discussion. Cumberbatch is still excellent when he’s allowed to tone down the quirky, self-awareness Sherlock has seemed to acquire. The odd race against time can still provide some thrills, when not directed into oblivion. Its enjoyable to see Moffat, Thompson and Gatiss have a ball with the script, when they aren’t using it to pat each other on the back. The central relationship is still one of the deepest on television, when it isn’t dominating the plot.
And Martin Freeman as Doctor John Hamish Watson is still (and has been since the first scene, in the first ever episode) the best thing about the series. Also, it’s the only thing I can praise without feeling the need to temper it with a caveat. The subtleties he puts into his performance, the annoyances, the grief, the repressed rage; with a spasm of his face he can communicate just how hard it is to comprehend Sherlock’s deductions, how they make him feel and how hard it is to repress those feelings. It’s an astonishing performance, often overshadowed but never outdone.
The main problem with this series, it seems, is just how low on the list of priorities the story is. Everything else seems to be taken more seriously than what is, in any fiction, the most important element. The fan baiting, the fan pandering, the shocking twists and surprise cameo’s. Like everything else they should all be serving the story, not having the story serve them. I have always looked at Sherlock as proof that television in this country can be as entertaining, polished and intelligent as anything on HBO or AMC. That our writing can be world class, our direction can be as good as anything in film. I will be more reluctant to do that from now on. But I still have faith that series four will be just as good as anything in series one and two. Because Moffat and Gatiss are still two of the best we have. Good luck boys. We’re counting on you.