Resurrecting Sherlock

Have Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss destroyed their beautiful creation?

Spoiler Alert Seasons Two and Three! If you have not yet watched Season Three of Sherlock, you may do so on the PBS website until March 4, 2014.

I may be on the wrong side of television history, but I feel it has to be said: the third season of BBC Sherlock is a dud. Certainly co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss got some things right, but overall Season Three has made some colossal errors.

We should start with the writing, since everything proceeds from that. The writing in Seasons One and Two was gorgeous—fun, disciplined, and above all, smart. The re-imagined characters were sharply drawn right out of the gate: John Watson as an Afghanistan veteran, safe at home but completely untethered from human life. Mrs. Hudson as a feisty, nurturing landlady with unexpected reserves of experience and grit. Detective Inspector Lestrade as a beleaguered cop with the emotional aptitude to glimpse human potential beyond his consulting detective’s oddness and intellect. Then there is Sherlock Holmes: vain, arrogant, and purposefully removed from human connection. His brilliance, it is revealed, is both reflexive and defensive, at once his means of understanding the world and his refuge against its rejection.

The plots were good, too. In the first two seasons, the stories were intricate and TV-believeable. Updates to iconic Holmes tropes were witty (Sherlock, revealing three nicotine patches on his arm as he settles down to think through a problem declares “Impossible to sustain a smoking habit in London these days”.) The visual effects used to describe internal processes were inventive and effective, elucidating without distracting from the action. In sum, it was lean-in TV: sly, sharp, and wonderfully unexpected.

Season One was surely the easiest to write. It pretty straighforwardly introduces us to Sherlock through the eyes of his new flatmate John Watson, and to the Sherlockian version of the 21st century London they inhabit. Tropes are updated, mysteries are solved, and a good time is had by all. It’s great fun, with a satisfying balance of plot and characterization.

But then the writers did something extraordinary, I think, with Season Two. In three episodes, writers Moffat, Gatiss, and Steve Thompson engineer a series of events that forces Sherlock Holmes to confront—dimly, reluctantly, inexorably—that he is, after all, merely human.

It starts with “A Scandal in Belgravia,” in which Holmes finds himself attracted to an extraordinary woman who is very nearly his match. There are several notable character moments in this episode: when Sherlock realizes (and regrets) that he has just made a public game out of Molly’s sincere feelings for him; when he discovers that Mrs. Hudson has been physically abused as a result of his connection to Irene Adler; and finally, when he realizes that he is, in Mycroft’s words, a “lonely naive man desperate to show off [for] a woman clever enough to make him feel special.”

This episode is followed by “The Hounds of Baskerville,” in which Holmes is confronted with the fallibility of his five senses—a very bitter pill for a man so reliant on them for his superiority.

And then “The Reichenbach Fall,” which pulls the very neat trick of bringing both Holmes brothers to their knees. Moriarty devises a scheme to humiliate the great detective by providing evidence that Sherlock committed and then solved all of his famous crimes. Mycroft, culpable for feeding Moriarty the information he has used to perpetrate the fraud, must acknowledge that he has been tricked into putting his brother in danger.

And Sherlock, desperately trying to out-think his rival, is forced to concede that his powers of deduction may not be equal to the task. “If I wasn’t everything that you think I am,” he asks Molly, “everything that I think I am — would you still want to help me?”

In the end, of course, Moriarty checkmates Holmes with his own suicide. Sherlock, now unable to compel Moriarty to call off his henchmen, is forced to sacrifice his hard-won reputation in exchange for the lives of his three friends. He publicly declares that he is a fraud, and then stages his own suicide in order to save Lestrade, Mrs. Hudson, and John Watson.

Now, how does a man come out of that kind of experience? Specifically, how does this man come out of that experience? Well, there are many possibilities, and for the sake of good television we should agree that he definitely would change. But he certainly would not evolve into the Sherlock of Season Three, who, strangely, possesses a fair self-awareness and emotional ease with the people around him. If anything, it seems to me, having exposed his devotion, he might pull back. Partly for protection (for someone so cut off from his emotional life, confronting his own deep feelings would likely result in emotional panic), and partly because, having made the declaration—he would reason—the message was received, no further broadcast required.

Or at least an I-just-had-two-years-away-from-my-loved-ones-oh-how-it-pains-me-to-even-think-those-words-lets-just-go-back-to-normal-can’t-we Holmes would make for interesting TV.

Instead, Season Three goes wildly awry. Plot takes precedence over character, and as a result, Sherlock’s personality is muddied. He’s not the old Sherlock from Seasons One or Two. The truth is, in Season Three he’s not even the same Sherlock from one episode to the next, and more often than not he seems, well, pretty normal.

Worse, narrative events undercut and contradict that beautiful Season Two character arc. (Ah! Sherlock enlisted hated brother Mycroft’s help early on, and neither one set a foot wrong in their plan to trick Moriarty and save the world. The sadness Molly saw in Sherlock’s face was…um…part of the trick. Sherlock was never out of control, and his and Mycroft’s superior intellects, correct as always, proved to be more than a match for the most diabolical archvillain ever known to man. Also, now they’re friends.)

But it’s all just part of the general sloppiness of the season, in which jokes go on too long (three drunken scenarios?), an assassin desperate to keep her past hidden routinely carries around a flash drive containing files that reveal her past, and Sherlock is transformed into a practical joker. (Episode One. Twice.)

Then there is the problem of Mary. As written in episodes one and two, she has an EQ to match Sherlock’s IQ; and in episode three, a matching IQ and mad assassin skills to boot. So what role, now, should John play? In the dynamic established in the first two seasons, Sherlock sees the world from the outside in, manipulating external cues into conclusions; John serves as his interpreter of internal life, providing empathy and a moral compass to his friend. With Mary’s insight so far outstripping John’s, what exactly is left for him to do?

Well, there is much to be done, and, I hope, much fun still to be had. Here is my wishlist for Messrs. Moffat and Gatiss as they move into Seasons Four and Five:

Bring back dysfunction. Look, not only is a fully-evolved Sherlock Holmes not believable, it’s just not fun to watch. Holmes’s over-developed cerebral cortex blindly irritating everyone around him? Now that’s a good time. Put it another way: Turning Holmes into a brilliant man with a wise heart would be roughly the equivalent of watching M.A.S.H.’s acerbic Hawkeye evolve into late-season sensitive-guy Hawkeye. Blech.

And frankly, Sherlock’s relationship with Mycroft is most interesting as a tale of unrequited love—dysfunctionally pursued via surveillance on Mycroft’s side, and permanently rejected on Sherlock’s thanks to his memories of Mycroft as childhood tormentor (and, sensibly, his awareness of Mycroft’s present-day activities). Sherlock’s relationship with Mycroft is the template for his relationship with the rest of the world, and just as Sherlock’s pursuit of intellectual superiority is unconsciously directed at proving his brother’s childhood devaluation to be wrong, his distrust of the world (and Mycroft) can never fully be erased.

Be clever, not obvious. Inverting audience expectations is, in and of itself, not funny. Mrs. Hudson saying “Not your housekeeper, dear” is funny because it’s true: modern landladies do not, as a rule, offer domestic services as part of the rent. In contrast, making Sherlock’s parents doltish is unbelievable, unoriginal, and just not very funny.

Similarly, visual effects are stylish when they help us understand the action. Otherwise, they’re just flash.

Scrap the super-villains and just give us tough problems to solve. A Sherlock episode without a smart mystery at its heart is like an episode of The Walking Dead without a zombie fight. I’ll admit that staying ahead of an intelligent audience isn’t easy, but that’s the bar Moffat and Gatiss set for themselves with the first two seasons. We don’t need another brilliant arch-rival. Just construct an insoluble problem and then start feeding out clues that only Sherlock can put together the right way.

Character, character, character. At the heart of the series is the relationship between Holmes and Watson. (And to be fair, the writing for Watson has been consistent, and Martin Freeman’s performance absolutely rock-solid.) Restore Sherlock’s singularity and re-establish his reliance on John Watson as his best and most trusted window into human nature.

And give Mary more specific gifts. Pull back the all-encompassing intellectual and emotional brilliance and decide on a specific (and limited) way in which she is smart about people and the world. Now that Magnusson’s “files” are destroyed, let her really be safe, and spare us any storylines that involve someone from her past. Above all (and I’m really begging here) never give us a situation in which Mary blazes in to save everyone’s life.

As a character, and as a relationship dynamic, Mary was much more intriguing as a normal who had been pulled into the Holmes/Watson vortex. The only thing to do now is to make her interesting as someone who fervently wants to put her past to rest, and who is smart enough to make a satisfying, normal life for herself on her own terms. (Not difficult, really. I know a number of very interesting non-assassins.) It is Sherlock who will do anything to stave off boredom. It is John who misses the thrill of combat. Mary can and should be different. [1]

Then bring everything back into balance. Create stories that allow some space for character development, but keep characters consistent. Don’t let plot considerations dictate character behavior. “It would be funny to see Sherlock do this” is a terrible metric. “How would Sherlock do that?” is much better.

What is done can’t be undone. But with these course corrections and a little thought, the missteps of Season Three can be rectified or at least glossed over. The game, if I may say it, is still on.

[1] Cf Je Souhaite from The X Files .

In the United States, Sherlock airs on MASTERPIECE on PBS and is currently available for online streaming through March 4th, 2014.

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