“Sherlock” Returns With More Style Than Substance

“The holiday is over, brother dear. Back to Baker Street, Sherlock Holmes.” These words thrilled thousands if not millions of fans on Sunday night, when season 3 of Sherlock, the BBC’s popular adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective stories, started airing on PBS.

Sherlock is remarkable in how effortless it feels. The writers took a story first published in 1887 and set it in the present day. It didn’t just work. It worked very well. Much of the credit is due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s success in the lead role. Over the years, Sherlock Holmes has been played by dozens of actors, including Christopher Lee, Charlton Heston, Rupert Everett, and Robert Downey Jr. Despite this backdrop, Cumberbatch’s Sherlock is not only uncontroversial but even beloved.

To say the new season is “hotly anticipated” would be an understatement. It’s been two years since the season 2 finale when Sherlock Holmes jumped to his “death” off a hospital roof. Fans have spent the intervening period endlessly debating how he pulled off the deception. The first episode of the new season, entitled “The Empty Hearse,” is also set two years later. Sherlock has allowed the outside world to believe he is dead so that he can roll up the criminal network of villain James Moriarty, who did actually die in the season 2 finale. Sherlock is summoned back to London by his smarmy older brother Mycroft, who asks him to help thwart a terrorist attack on London.

Without giving too much away, the new season has few clear cut answers about how Sherlock faked his death. In interviews, Cumberbatch himself has confessed that he doesn’t understand what happened.

Sherlock’s first order of business is to reenlist his old partner, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman). As a high-functioning sociopath, he fails to realize Watson will be upset with him over the fake death. Sherlock is more concerned about Watson’s new mustache. “He looks ancient,” Sherlock sighs to Mycroft. “I can’t be seen to be wandering around with an old man.”

In “The Adventure of the Empty House,” one of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories on which this episode is partly based, Watson faints when he sees Holmes return from the dead. Then, he quickly forgives him. The modern iteration of Watson has a more human, less angelic response and punches Holmes in the face.

From there, the plot gets muddled. There are more emotional reunions, a bomb attack has to be thwarted, and a new supervillain replaces Moriarty. It’s a lot to be shoehorned into a single episode—even a 90-minute one. The writers might have done better to narrow their focus a bit. Though, they haven’t lost any of the show’s signature elements: witty dialogue, a fast pace, and inventive visuals. The gorgeous, lingering shots of the London skyline will doubtless cause many Americans to go online to check airfares.

A special treat is the extended scenes between brothers Mycroft and Sherlock. The two are completely believable as brothers and their interaction lights up the screen. Mycroft gets some of the best lines (“If you seem slow to me, Sherlock, can you imagine what real people are like?”). This may be due to the fact that he’s played by Mark Gatiss, the show’s co-creator, who wrote this episode.

In general, “The Empty Hearse” feels like a family reunion. Watson has a new love interest, Mary Morstan, who is played by Amanda Abbington, Freeman’s long-time girlfriend in real life. When her casting was announced, she received death threats from fans who called it nepotism. Their fears will be assuaged when they see her in the role. She brings a warm, down-to-earth presence and fits in well with the rest of the cast. Though, Sherlock’s deduction that she’s a “liar” suggests there may be some plot twists ahead.

We also get our first ever glimpse of Sherlock’s parents, played by Cumberbatch’s actual mother and father. Sherlock calls them “my cross to bear.”

There are many in-jokes for the fans. These quickly begin to weigh down the plot. Perhaps Sherlock is getting a bit complacent with its own popularity. Many viewers watched the season 2 finale when it actually aired – two years ago. It’s a bit much to expect them to remember every detail and to pick up on complicated jokes about it. Also, significant screen time is given to an annoying fan club that debates ways Sherlock could have faked his death. This is obviously a tribute by the writers to all the real-life fanboys and fangirls, but it’s tangential at best. Any show with a cult following has the challenge of meeting the needs of both its casual viewers and its diehards. Right now, Sherlock seems to be tipping too far in favor of the latter group.

While Sherlock was off the air for two years, its stars seem to be everywhere at once. Freeman is currently starring as Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit trilogy. Cumberbatch has also been very busy, starring in films including Star Trek: Into Darkness, 12 Years a Slave, and The Fifth Estate. Their heavy work schedules contributed to the two-year gap between the seasons. The BBC hopes season 4 won’t take quite so long. If the writers need two more years to iron out some kinks and get this truly great show back on track, though, it will be well worth the wait.

Follow Emma Elliott Freire on Twitter.

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