The long-awaited third series of the BBC's "Sherlock" is kind of a mess. It's not a bad mess, and certainly an entertaining one, but stakes are lower, the writing is more indulgent, and there's a definite sense that it's resting on its laurels a bit. While it avoids certain pitfalls and doesn't hit the lows of the prior series, it gets nowhere near the highs either. This set of episodes caters to existing fans of "Sherlock," but certain changes also move the show in a direction that some of them may not appreciate. Some mild spoilers ahead.
Of the three new installments, the first is the most successful because it's the most focused. Last series and two years ago, Sherlock Holmes faked his own death after a standoff with arch nemesis Moriarty, and so the premiere episode has to expend a great deal of effort to get everything back to the status quo. Sherlock is brought back to London on the trail of a new terrorist threat, and reconnects with his old circle of friends and allies, some of them in very different places from where he left them. John Watson has not only vacated Baker Street, but now has a serious girlfriend, Mary Morstan, played by Amanda Abbington. Patching things up between Holmes and Watson isn't easy, and for a while it seems that the rift may be permanent.
The biggest change in the new series is that Sherlock Holmes has softened up and gotten more human. He's still capable of being incredibly selfish and thoughtless, but his concern for his friends is transparent now, and there are several examples of him really trying to be more considerate towards people like Molly Hooper. The bromance with Watson gets downright sentimental at times, as they both have to acknowledge multiple times in these episodes how much their partnership means to them, particularly as the threat of further separation keeps rearing its head. We get more material referencing Sherlock's past, with regular appearances by older brother Mycroft and couple of great comedic scenes with their parents. It all serves to demystify Sherlock Holmes as a character, which I rather enjoyed, but may set other fans' teeth on edge.
All the emphasis on character exploration means that the mysteries get rather shortchanged this year. The first and second installments both feature exciting, but uninvolving cases that aren't presented in a particularly engaging way. They feel incidental to everything else that's going on, and a little slapdash in basic construction. It's only the finale that features a pair of strong villains that feel like real threats, one of them a blackmail artist played with great panache by Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen. Unfortunately, that installment gets tripped up by a particularly poor ending, especially compared to the previous series' cliffhanger. Also, there are many more self-referential moments, which don't add much to the stories.
The season still features plenty of its trademark inventiveness, lots of little clever bits of plotting, and some really good dialogue. I especially liked the way that the first episode offers multiple theories and explanations for how Sherlock Holmes faked his death, starting with a totally unrealistic one straight out of a Hollywood action movie. The problem is that the scripts are overstuffed and too ambitious, juggling lots of different disparate elements that fail to cohere as well as they have in the past. We zip from comic scenes to sober ones to action beats to bromance at a lightning pace. Though I saved them up, I found couldn't watch more than one installment at a time.
If you set the twisty mysteries aside, however, and focus on the character drama, "Sherlock" is still very consistent and a lot of fun. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are both excellent, and their rapport is as good as it ever was. They handle this year's lighter material with ease, and both seem to enjoy the sillier moments. Cumberbatch manages to make a particularly long and unwieldy comic sequence in the second episode work seemingly by sheer force of will. Amanda Abbington's a great addition to the cast, with such an easy chemistry with Martin Freeman that it comes as no surprise that they're romantic partners in real life.
I hope "Sherlock" doesn't end here, because it would be a very unsatisfying place to stop. The third series feels like a transitional one, a stepping stone to a different phase of the show's existence. However, considering the difficulties with the production of "Sherlock," juggling the schedules of two much in-demand lead actors, I'm a little worried about this approach. If we have another two-year wait before the fourth series, it doesn't help that we've been left with a set of episodes that ended so weakly. I really hope the last twist was a red herring.
Oh well. There's still every reason to stay optimistic, considering the level of the talent involved. The wait begins for Year Four.