Sunday, February 5, 2017

"Sherlock," Year Four

Minor spoilers ahead.

The long-awaited fourth series of "Sherlock" has landed at last, with one very good installment, and two decent-to-middling ones with rather botched endings. I'm used to "Sherlock" having had dud episodes since the beginning, and series four is overall a marked improvement over the goofier series three. Still, this run of episodes felt like they'd been made in an awful hurry, with a lot of corner cutting and sloppy writing. The last episode in particular seems to have key scenes missing and some of the plotting just plain doesn't make sense when you consider it in hindsight. Showrunners Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss still have a wealth of good ideas, but their execution of them has become terribly hit or miss.

So, when last we left "Sherlock," John Watson and his wife Mary were happily expecting a baby girl, and Sherlock Holmes had gotten an obnoxious notification from the deceased Moriarty that he was coming back for more criminal hijinks. However, Moriarty doesn't really play a big role in the first two installments - like in previous series we have to build up to him. Instead, there are other villains and figures of interest, including those played by Lindsay Duncan, Sian Brooke, and Marcia Warren. The most successful of the newcomers is Toby Jones as Culverton Smith, a beloved philanthropist who may also be a serial killer. He's the main antagonist of the second episode, which is by far the most successful and entertaining. Also, all of the old gang is back, including Lestrade, Mycroft, Molly Hooper, and a very welcome Mrs. Hudson, who gets all the best laugh lines.

A common criticism of the later series of "Sherlock" is that the mysteries have become too personal, and many of the developments too outlandishly melodramatic. Both of the weaker episodes end up revolving around people with close personal ties to Watson or Holmes, and their friendship is in jeopardy again, of course. However, I don't particularly have any issue with the direction that the writers decided to take the show, just the rushed nature of the storytelling. A kinder, gentler, and more emotional Sherlock with more personal attachments works just as well as the antisocial version, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch's performance, and I like watching Watson's personal life progress more rapidly. However, Mary Watson ends up assuming an unfortunate type of role too common for women in genre fiction, and a big shocker ending in one of the episodes is just handled very badly. In a show full of super geniuses, super spies, and criminal masterminds, sometimes the characters can be real idiots.

"Sherlock" has also doubled down on its breakneck pacing and use of gobs of fancy visuals. You have to really watch closely to follow the plots, many of which are rather haphazardly constructed this time out. There's a sequence in the second episode where Sherlock's frame of mind shifts about half a dozen times in less than a minute. I admire the show's continued ambition, and it certainly keeps the series very watchable, but I know deep down that it's also a tactic to cover up and distract from the weaker parts of the writing. When "Sherlock" works, though, it's still a real treat to watch. The second episode, "The Lying Detective," is up there with my favorite episodes of the series. However, it's immediately followed by "The Final Problem," which is a pretty unforgiveable mess despite a few good moments. There are very strong indications that this is the final episode of "Sherlock" for the foreseeable future, and at this point I'm not too sad to see it go.

If it does come back, after another multi-year hiatus, I think the series is due for some shaking up. New writers would be helpful, and maybe chucking some of the regulars. Culverton Smith and last year's Magnussen prove that the series works perfectly well with big villains other than Moriarty. And good grief, the show really needs to stop teasing us about Irene Adler if it's not going to deliver.

As far as I'm concerned, "Sherlock" still owes us the proper ending of "Scandal in Belgravia."


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