BBC’s Sherlock reimagining has always been an odd duckling. In it’s first two series Moffat and his team created a Sherlock Holmes that slotted nicely between complete fealty to the source material and entirely abandoning the spirit of the original stories. Moffat’s Sherlock stood out – both from the original stories and the endless imitators currently clogging up the television. And then Sherlock took two years off. Cumberbatch became Assange and Khan, Freeman went to Middle Earth, and Moffat hopped in the TARDIS for a while.
After watching Sherlock’s first three episodes in two years, I felt discombobulated. There was still plenty of banter between Sherlock and Watson, the show still indulged in a mystery or two, with dollops of the efficient character work that Moffat has built a career off of. Yet the feeling I had was the same gnawing sense of unease that welcomed me after watching Arrested Development return after a seven year absence. Like the end of Quantum Leap, Sherlock never returned home.
Over in the states, there’s plenty of envy for the British Television model. It offers a flexibility that the American system has never had – actors are free to pursue passion projects and the writers don’t have to fill every season with countless episodes that do little more than maintain the status quo. But Sherlock isn’t really a television series. In raw minutes, three 90 minute episodes feels substantial. But there’s only room for three storylines, three plots – and no room to establish stability before tearing it all down.
In Sherlock’s first years, Moffat’s plotting felt restrained. Each season devoted the second episode to a fun little lark of an adventure – battling a Chinese acrobat crime syndicate (the less said about the racial implications, the better) or stumbling into a fun riff on horror stories. By contrast, this series tries to cover an ungodly amount of emotional ground, leaving us feeling like we’re perpetually five minutes late to a party.
The first episode functions as a ninety minute treatise on Sherlock and Watson’s companionship, but is largely consumed by the “mystery” surrounding Sherlock’s return. 90% of telling a good television story comes down to pacing, knowing when to tease and when to deliver. Leaving fans to obsess over Sherlock’s faked death for over two years meant that there was no answer that could possibly satisfy those with even a passing interest in the resolution. Instead of getting to the underwhelming answer, though, the script teases the viewer for eighty minutes. Characters dream of solutions involving British celebrities and slash fiction – all of which takes away from the present-day drama of Sherlock’s return. And when the answer is revealed, it’s done in an ambiguous handwave that cheapens everything that went before.
Look, there’s no way to accurately portray a detailed step-by-step battle of wits between Sherlock and Moriarity. Their very cleverness means that we’ll never entirely be in on the secret. But we should occasionally be invited into the parlor, and shown a small scintilla of how Sherlock’s mind works. Every glimpse we received these past three episodes has felt obligatory at best. Sherlock used to be a show about two guys solving crimes together. Now it’s a show about Sherlock and Watson’s relationship – and we’re lucky if the script occasionally remembers to give us even the ornamental trappings of a mystery. The first episode’s actual “mystery” involving the Underground demands Sherlock take fifty minutes to realize that an entire train car is missing; the sort of reveal that even the drunkest homicide detective could catch.
For example, the second episode attempts to marry a smattering of actual crimesolving with Watson’s wedding. But instead of simply telling the story in straight chronological order, the script bounces us to and fro like an overly pushy amusement ride. “Look!” it screams. “Sherlock’s theme in dubstep!” “A mystery that manages to be both convoluted and entirely too basic!” Thrown weakly into an endless best man speech that feels like it goes on for decades, the whole episode feels gimmicky. Mucking with chronology only works if the writer has a damn good reason for it – if the entire point of the story hinges on the unorthodox structure. Writers can get away with the occasional stylistic flourish in a movie script, because movie’s largely don’t build on top of one another. But when each episode of Sherlock is meant to click together like a lego set, ambiguity and stylistic wankery does nothing but remind the viewer that they’re sitting in front of their television sets watching increasingly implausible doses of Moffat’s storybook London.
Roger Ebert repeatedly mentioned that every good movie has to pass the “refrigerator test.” It’s okay for a movie not to make much sense; with enough time a devoted fan can pick apart even the most ornate of scripts. A movie’s plot holes should only start to dawn on you after the movie is over and you’re grabbing a beer from the fridge. Sherlock’s final episode utterly fails this test. The script attempts to link together the few scraps of foreshadowing in the two previous episodes with all the grace of a drunk Sherlock Holmes. I once had a writing teacher tell us that all we had to do was stay true to our characters. And in Sherlock’s final episode, Watson certainly acts in character. But just because you can tell a “Watson marries a CIA assassin” story doesn’t make it a story worth telling. It is one twist too many, the equivalent of listening to a writer pitch his story and constantly saying “But wait, there’s more!”
The shame is that on a scene-by-scene level, it is a satisfying entry. Martin Freeman plays the hell out of Watson’s anguish, and we’re given an extended look at Sherlock’s psyche. But it all feels too far gone, too much of a (yes, again) gimmick. We’re introduced to Mary, than we see her at her wedding, than she’s suddenly an assassin but wait she really loves Watson but wait she might not but what if she’s…. it’s all storm and thunder without any time to take in the rain.
And to top off the highly experimental set of episodes, Moffat and his crew indulge in non-linear storytelling yet again. The middle section is an utter mess of well-written scenes crashing and cascading into one another, as if the writers pressed the “randomize” button for no reason. The strangeness concludes with perhaps the most controversial moment of their entire series. Sherlock decides to outwit Magnusson by… bringing a gun into his highly fortified fortress and shooting him with it. It’s pure Indiana Jones, but feels incredibly jarring. The writing tries to play it off as a “Sherlock isn’t a hero” moment, but it instead feels like the show has ran out of ideas. Zach Snyder’s awful Man of Steel made a similar mistake; our heroes of yesterday should be brought into the modern world with flair – but not with the added infantile notion that murder somehow makes them more complex. Shooting your enemy in the head isn’t a victory; it’s cowardice.
For all of the above, Sherlock may still be worth a Recommendation. The performances remain impressive, and the impressionistic directing style is at least unique. But languid individual episodes hurriedly stitched together to give the illusion of a plan do not make for a satisfying whole.
It all feels too much for the sake of being too little.
Steven Timberman is a Californian who has spent the last decade travelling. Along the way he's managed to pick up two creative writing degrees. Recently graduated, Steven continues to flit about, with active projects including a novella set in London and a political thriller TV pilot. You can see more of his work at GenerationChiChi.blogspot.com