As in, if you read this and learn how bad the third season of Sherlock truly is, it may spoil your appreciation of the show forever.
I finally watched the long awaited first episode of the third season of Sherlock. I know Benedict Cumberbatch is a superstar now, but seriously, when did he become a superstar? I mean, I remember watching this show two years ago because it was a whip smart, modern take on a character that I thought had been done to death, and I loved the intersection with modern technology, the one-liners and asides to true, long-time Holmes fans, and the fact that they finally, after a century of trying to make Sherlock a romantic and tragic hero on the screen, admitted that he was just an asshole…and most definitely a sociopath.
But suddenly it has gone from “Benedict…who?” to “Benedict Cumberbatch, the most British man ever whose name sounds like a cross between a pudding and a sex act!” And you know what? Now, suddenly, people are watching not because they are long-time fans of Sherlock Holmes, but because they think Benedict Cumberbatch is hot. And it shows. “The Empty Hearse” was the weakest episode of the series to date. I know they had to explain how Sherlock faked his own death, and I appreciate the clever nods to fan fiction and all the outrageous theories that have been going on since then, but really, there was too much explication and not enough storyline. And when they did get down to old-fashioned detective work, it was a dud. Come ON. A bomb under Parliament? An on-off switch? Sherlock didn’t even figure out the whole thing this time (for the first time). Instead, it was the guy with the smelly hat who worked for the London Underground. He was the one who told them about the “secret station that was built but never opened DIRECTLY UNDER Houses of Parliament.” And you have to be kidding me with “secret station that was built but never opened DIRECTLY UNDER Houses of Parliament”! Really? That’s the best you could do?
Not to mention the fact that Sherlock seems to have left his generally unpleasant qualities behind him for the season. The fact that he swooped in with a French moustache painted on just as Watson was about to propose was not out of character for him in its general nastiness and inability to read situations, but it went just a bit too far: it was downright cringeworthy in a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” kind of way, as opposed to endearing. Also, kissing Molly on the cheek and thanking everyone for helping him fake his own death? The man’s gone soft! Or the people who write him have….
“The Sign of Three,” the second episode of Season Three, fared no better. Of course, I rejoiced upon seeing that Watson seemed to have found his perfect mate (as in, someone who did not merely tolerate Sherlock’s presence but actually seemed to get a kick out of it), and was excited when they began talking of a wedding…I just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. But just as the first episode seemed rushed, the entire season seems obsessed with zipping through life’s conventional highlights now that they’ve established Sherlock still has a life to live. They also seem far too preoccupied with putting Sherlock in situations where he ends up doing things he would never do. He smiles at everyone, he apparently “loves dancing” but has never told anyone, he makes a best man toast that leaves the entire wedding party tearing up, he (or the writers) tries to redeem it all for a second by actually solving a real live murder case as it’s about to happen (the resolution of which, unfortunately, comes too quickly and easily for a Sherlock episode and is therefore wholly unsatisfying). In general, Sherlock goes rogue in that he goes “normal”; the vast majority of his actions are entirely out of character for him. Why didn’t they just get Richard Curtis to direct this episode? Indeed, one Internet reviewer referred to it as Sherlock, Actually as if this were a good thing. It is not a good thing, it is an embarrassment.
Once again, gone are the recognizable features of earlier seasons (introducing a case early on and focusing the entire episode on solving that case, allowing the hilarious personalities and wonderful friendship of the two protagonists to spring from that instead of trying to make it the main act). We get a tantalizing glimpse of what another real episode of Sherlock might look like with the repeated opening (albeit slightly overblown) scene of Lestrade exiting a courthouse at different times after different crimes, all the while bemoaning his inability to nab a family of bank robbers. You think this is all leading somewhere, that eventually he’ll be able to celebrate a successful arrest thanks to Sherlock’s capabilities, but no. The storyline is interrupted by Sherlock dramatically texting Lestrade to his side in order to ask for help in writing a best man speech. I know this was probably meant to be a jokey aside to appease fans—“oh, you thought we would do another ‘Sherlock saves the day and looks sour about it’ scene, but instead we faked you out! It’s all wedding, all the time!”—but instead it just left me feeling a bit sour as well. Really? Once again we’re not going to have a true case to solve along with the characters, but rather a smattering of short “caselettes” to spice up an episode so conventional, it would fit in better with the story arc of How I Met Your Mother?
Slate has attempted to explain (or perhaps excuse) the writers’ poor decision-making this season by pointing out that now the show “takes its structure not, as in the past, from specific cases, but [from] the evolving relationships between the members of its newly minted love triangle.” Oh really, Slate? So basically, what you’re saying is that this show is going to becoming like every other show on television and you’re fine with that? The website also makes a valiant attempt at justifying the poor quality of the first episode by claiming that the second one is better, and that it was always thus: “Historically, there has been one excellent episode, one pretty good episode, and one episode redeemed by Cumberbatch’s extraordinarily charming performance…. The second episode of this season, set at Watson’s wedding, is a pure delight, the best episode the show has ever done.” But that’s just the problem: I found the second episode not only dull as dishwater, but also truly terrifying in that it signaled a death knell for a show I have come to respect more than any other on television. If the second episode is “the best episode the show has ever done,” then that certainly doesn’t bode well for the Slate reviewer’s opinion of the previous two seasons, or for that matter, the true spirit of Sherlock Holmes, which was so brilliantly on display in seasons past.
I started watching the series on a recommendation from my parents, who have easier access to television than I do these days (they own one and I don’t). I’ve been a fan of Holmes stories ever since I read my very first in middle school, and realized it was much better than 90% of the crap coming out calling itself literature. I was lucky enough to take classes in 19th century literature taught by a truly brain-expanding teacher whose mind seemed to work much like Holmes’s, making connections where none could see any before. I was happy to find that some book lovers (even those with PhDs) counted Sir Arthur’s stories among the greats. I thought that the writers of Sherlock did as well, but I guess Season Three has gone and proven me wrong.
My conclusion? Somewhere along the way, the writers of Sherlock abandoned Sherlock Holmes fans and began catering to Cumberbatch fans. I’m beginning to wish he really hadn’t faked his own death at the end of “The Reichenbach Falls.” Where’s the fan fiction on that?