Sherlock: Series 3
based on the Sherlock Holmes canon by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
What a difference four years make.
Four years ago, in 2010, we were a year into Steven Moffat’s tenure on Doctor Who and just getting acquainted with his slick, updated take on Sherlock Holmes. Everything was shiny, new, and full of enough subtext to generate one of the most popular slash pairings of the twenty-first century. And never mind fandom—under Moffat’s hand, Doctor Who finally became massively popular Stateside, and Sherlock became a critical darling.
And then the pattern took shape. What was interesting, fresh, and sweet in “The Doctor Dances”—oh, who can forget Nine’s sheer, almost painful joy at the thought of everyone living, for once?—started spoiling when everybody started living all the time. Moffat’s extraordinarily specific issues with women seem all the more glaring when they’re reflected a dozen times over in the two most popular British television exports in America. The production team’s extremely dim view of their fandom certainly didn’t help. But the last nail in the coffin for me was Elementary, another modern Sherlock Holmes adaptation that basically blows Sherlock out of the water. As tumblr pointed out in a post I’ve now lost, maybe going away for two years is a bad idea if somebody else is just going to come along and do your thing better.
Except that Elementary doesn’t exactly do what Sherlock does better. Elementary is a crime procedural featuring fairly bland mysteries, amazing character development, and actual consequences. Sherlock’s third series reveals the show’s true colors as pure, escapist, anti-heroic fantasy, where our hero can do essentially whatever he wants without suffering any consequences. Now, there’s not a thing wrong with some pure escapist fantasy. I myself am thoroughly enjoying watching Xena: Warrior Princess, where our titular princess gets to do all the things I can’t do in everyday life, like backflip onto horses and breathe fire at creeps. But, at the end of the day, Xena must suffer the consequences of previously having been a tyrannical warlord. Heck, even Iron Man takes Tony Stark down a peg or two.
But Sherlock begins the season by stealing a bike and ends by literally getting away with murder. (There’s a heartfelt ending that’s immediately dismissed and reset, true to form. Although I was not expecting the second reset button, so I suppose that’s technically a twist.) He treats people poorly, even the one person that he supposedly cares about and values above all others—John Watson. Fans have been dreaming for years about what would happen when Sherlock Holmes finally returned from the dead. My own speculation involved a lot of punching, a lot of tears, and a lot of lingering distrust. But Watson’s very deserved blind rage is largely played for laughs; it’s brought in the second episode of the series as a literal gag. Sherlock is largely about looking very cool and clever, playing merry hell with its own character development and logic as it sees fit to achieve this end. It’s enjoyable in that regard, but, ultimately, it leaves me empty.
Still, there are a few saving graces. Regular readers will know that I adore Mary Watson, to the point of privately hoping that she turns up in some incarnation in Elementary. (I don’t care what gender ze is! Just give me that wedding episode.) After the show’s mishandling of Irene Adler in series two, I was quite anxious. During the first two episodes, Mary is a delight, although bafflingly charmed by Sherlock’s erratic behavior. (I think I just have to accept that this show operates in a world where everything Sherlock does is cool and awesome.) Amanda Abbington, Martin Freeman’s actual partner, brings a puckish charm to the role. But Sherlock is not kind to its female characters, as Gavia Baker-Whitelaw articulates much better than I over at Hello Tailor, although Mary gets out more or less on top.
Of more interest are two narrative elements that, unfortunately, don’t get to spread their wings—Sherlock as arrogant manchild (literalized visually in the last episode) and the supremely dysfunctional relationship between Sherlock and Mycroft. The manchild aspect plays wonderfully in some spots, like Sherlock bonding with a small child over gore or Sherlock stomping out of an opium den while whining that getting high was just part of the research for a case. Unfortunately, it’s often undercut by the fact that Sherlock doesn’t suffer any consequences for his actions and that he immediately becomes dashing and cool as soon as he can. As for the brothers Holmes, it’s revealed that, due to their runaway intellect, Mycroft largely raised Sherlock, to the point that Sherlock’s instinctual concept of a terrifying authority figure is his brother. Mark Gatiss and Benedict Cumberbatch have a fantastic, antagonistic chemistry that plays perfectly brotherly, no matter if they’re squabbling over national security measures or childhood memories. But, again, the show doesn’t particularly like to point out that they’re supremely dysfunctional; rather, it’s played as super cool. And that’s really the story of Sherlock in a nutshell—too cool to have a soul.
Bottom line: Sherlock’s third series is pure escapist fantasy, seriously harmed by the fact that its protagonist suffers no consequence for his behavior. There are bright spots—Moffat’s way with a quip, the chemistry between not only Sherlock and John but Sherlock and Mycroft—but ultimately, it’s heavy on the style and low on the substance.
I watched this series on PBS.