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sherlock season 3 episode 3Season 3 of Sherlock ended with the broadcast of “His Last Vow” last night in the United States, and I’m sorry to say it ended — not with a bang — but a thud.

This has been a season of experimentation for Sherlock and I’m happy to give Moffat and Gatiss points for trying new things.  But the results have been, at best, and with generosity, middling.

I thought Episode 1 of Season 3 was weighed too heavily toward comedy, and something like sketch comedy at that. Episode 2 was a ROM-COM romantic comedy. Either of these was preferable, to my taste, compared to the soap opera of “His Last Vow”.

*** Major Spoiler Alert – although you might thank me for saving you the trouble. My wife did. ***

Like the other two episodes this year, “His Last Vow” felt frantic and over-busy, rather than fast-paced and complex — which were significant strengths of the first two seasons. It also taxed my extremely willing suspension of disbelief with its plot line concerning Mary Watson, who is apparently not the down-to-earth, loving, and pregnant wife John Watson needs — but a rogue spy with a very dark past who is on the run from sinister forces and who, among other things, shoots Sherlock. (I’m not making that up.)

We were also treated to the spectacle of Sherlock being outwitted by a Moriarty 2.0 or Moriarty Reloaded and then, to protect John Watson, shooting dead said Moriarty 2.0; followed by Sherlock’s exile to a fatal secret-agent mission in Eastern Europe.

All this would have been tolerable — maybe — if Moffat and Gatiss had honored the relationship- and show-changing dynamics of these stories. But instead, they have John Watson reconcile with Mary (really?) and Sherlock instantly reprieved from his fatal mission because, guess who reappears? Yes, Moriarty 1.0. Did you think he was actually dead? Me neither. Are you wondering why we had to wait an entire season to have Moriarty 1.0 reintroduced? Me too.

I believe that Moffat and Gatiss have not willing embraced parody, and are not trying to yank our chains, but this is not good work; and my disappointment is doubled by how good their work was before, which was not simply good, but excellent.

Redeeming the weakness in the stories this season were Moffat and Gatiss’ feel for their characters in small  moments and the performances of the whole cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch, but especially Martin Freeman, who consistently invested even the most absurd situations this season with complete and moving conviction.

I looked forward to Season 3 of Sherlock with hope and anticipation. I’m afraid I can’t consider a Season 4 with either emotion.

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sherlock sign of three season 3Sherlock offered us something new in “The Sign of Three,” which was broadcast last night in the United States: Sherlock Holmes as the hero of a ROM-COM romantic comedy.

The couple in question is Sherlock and John Watson, of course. Sherlock plays the role of the boyfriend as we often see him in movies today: fixated on his work, uncertain of his feelings, and afraid to commit.

John Watson gets the part of the girlfriend, which in The Economist’s brilliant recent phrase means he is “a perky hybrid of nursemaid [and] personal assistant.” (The Economist also added “sex worker” which is not germane in this case.)

All is fine on Baker Street until John falls in love with Mary and threatens their bro-mance. The relationship deepens, but is also complicated, when John asks Sherlock to be his best man, which requires Holmes to both think about his feelings and confront the fact he doesn’t like to think about them.

Watson and Sherlock bond during a drunken stag night, which lands them in jail. Sherlock delivers a funny-awkward-touching best-man speech, and following the pattern of the ROM-COM, all ends happy with dancing to 70s music at John and Mary’s wedding reception.

I give the Sherlock-team points for trying something new and surprising me. And I enjoyed the results okay I guess. But ideally, I’d like my reaction to innovation to be “Well done!” and not “What the heck?” and “What the heck?” was my reaction.

Part of my difficulty is that the tone of “The Sign of Three” is so different from that of the first two seasons that I might as well have been watching another show entirely. A bigger problem for me is that a lot of the episode felt as if it could have been almost any romantic comedy that rolls out of Hollywood. Or worse, one of dozens of television sit-coms that deliver yucks and “aaawwws!” in equal measures and with equal lacks of flair.

On the plus side, since I think that a Sherlock Holmes story should contain a good mystery, the detective story in “The Sign of Three” was a significant improvement over last week’s “The Empty Hearse.”

Two unsolved and seemingly unrelated mysteries come together and allow Sherlock to unravel and prevent a murder in progress at John and Mary’s wedding. The management of the plot elements and structure was neat (a strength of Moffat and Gatiss that abandoned them last week) and the story played a chess game, and then showed us how it was played, which is something the Conan Doyle did very well when he was on his game.

How to sum up my feelings about Season 3 so far? How about this: “Oh Sherlock, I feel we’re just drifting along on familiarity and habit. You’ve changed. The spark you lit in my heart has dimmed and cooled. Oh please, won’t you make it blaze again next week!”

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Sherlock Season 3 empty hearseI was looking forward to the US premiere Sunday night of the new season of Sherlock. So I’m sorry to say I thought “The Empty Hearse” came up short.

As I said in my Sunday post on Sherlock, what I particularly admired about Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptation was the greater depth and feeling they gave to Arthur Conan Doyle’s characters and how well they crafted their plots based on Doyle’s stories. Both those strengths seemed to have abandoned them in “The Empty Hearse” however.

The largest issue at the beginning of Season 3 was how Watson — who believed Holmes had died at the end of Season 2 and intensely grieved for him — would react to Holmes’ reappearance. This could have been a fearful reckoning, but instead Moffat and Gatiss’ play it for yucks and not just once, but again and again; and while the jokes were funny, they were also decidedly beside the point and began to get old as the episode ticked down to its conclusion.

The story also had problems. In the first two seasons, Moffat and Gatiss showed themselves to be masters at creating intricate, compelling mysteries that Holmes satisfyingly untangles while at the same time deepening the conflicts and relationships among their characters.

In “The Empty Hearse,” the terrorist plot is more perfunctory than intriguing; its solution hinges on resolving a single — and not very complicated — mystery; the bomb-diffusing climax is played for more laughs; and the story itself seems unsure of who the bomber is and why he is bomber-ing.

“The Empty Hearse” also doesn’t explain how Holmes faked his death at the end of Season 2. Instead, it offers three speculations, two thrilling and possible, one fake and hilarious (though cruel to Watson if you think about it), none confirmed. It seems as if the last explanation is the truth, but I have my doubts whether we are meant to believe it. The scene feels a bit too coy and a bit too cute to give me confidence. (Maybe I’m wrong.) I actually don’t mind that Moffat and Gatiss leave me in some uncertainty. But in the general messiness of the episode, that feels more like an oversight than their intention.

The result is that “The Empty Hearse” delivers a grab-bag of scenes and sketches that often entertain, sometimes move (primarily on the strength of Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performances), but plain just don’t hang together. I’m hoping Moffat and Gatiss regain their stride this Sunday. We’ll see.

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sherlock winsIn preparation for the American premiere of the third season of PBS’ Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, I’ve been rewatching the first two seasons and reading the original stories and novels by Arthur Conan Doyle. And I’ve come to a conclusion. Sherlock is superior to its source material.

Explaining why I think Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ adaptations are better than Conan Doyle’s work is relatively easy. Deciding how much credit Moffat and Gatiss get for their success was more more tricky. In the end, however, I think Doyle gets most of it.

What Arthur Conan Doyle Did Right

What Conan Doyle did superbly right in his stories and novels is create the vivid, particular character of Sherlock Holmes, who deserves his enduring fascination and appeal.

I think this fascination springs first from the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a fully-formed literary character who is at the same time largely two dimensional (a quality he shares with the other characters in Conan Doyle’s stories, unfortunately).

The reason this contradiction succeeds so brilliantly is that Sherlock Holmes seems to be suffering from an autism-spectrum disorder, which explains his intellectual powers, his deep knowledge of arcane subjects, his passionate focus on problems that interest him, his inability to read social cues or manage social interactions (though indifference might be the cause), and in particular, the but-faint glimmers we get of Holmes’ interior life.

With most of the characters in Sherlock Holmes, we cannot penetrate beyond their surfaces because they have no character beyond their surfaces. With Holmes, his impenetrability is part of his essence; we don’t understand him well because Holmes is indifferent to such questions himself; and perhaps the greatest mystery of all in the stories is the nature of Sherlock Holmes’ soul.

Conan Doyle gets full marks for investing Holmes with extraordinary powers of observation, analysis, reasoning, and deduction, and for creating compelling examples of these qualities in action.

Finally, he gets credit for filling his stories with intriguing hints: the loneliness of John Watson after his return from the Afghanistan wars; the suggestion that Mycroft Holmes occasionally “is the British government”; and of course the huge dramatic potential found in the character of Professor Moriarty.

What Conan Doyle Did Not Do At All

The problem is that Conan Doyle often does too little with these characters, and frankly too little with many of the stories in the Holmes canon; and I keep thinking the problems rise from either Conan Doyle’s lack of skill as a writer or his lack of interest in the stories themselves.

A Study in Scarlet is a good example. All the good things about Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories are right there, already in place, right out of the gate: the character of Sherlock Holmes most especially, his great intellectual powers, and an impressively worked-out mystery.

But then there are the problems. Holmes and Watson meet cute, and Holmes jumps right off the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, but the management of the beginning of their relationship feels perfunctory. Doyle needs Watson and Holmes to come together and so they do; and the most basic of Holmes-ian questions is not answered, namely “Why?”

Then it is hard to read A Study in Scarlett and without concluding that Doyle simply does not manage plots very well. The majority of the story is advanced through exposition and halfway through the novel, the telling is handed over to the murderer and the scene abruptly shifts to the American West, where begins the long and tedious explanation of the murderer’s motives which involve dastardly Mormon polygamists and the outrages they commit against an innocent girl. (I’m not making that up.) Holmes utterly disappears and it is Holmes that makes Doyle worth reading.

The Final Problem – the story that features Holmes’ famous death at the Reichenbach Falls – has related problems. Here we discover Moriarty and see the only time Holmes and his arch-nemesis meet face to face. Moriarty is interesting. The conversation between Moriarty and Holmes is interesting. Doyle makes the friendship between Holmes and Watson, as they flee Moriarty, feel convincing. But the great chess game of move and counter-move Holmes tells us he’s playing with Moriarty happens entirely off the page, and we get no hint of the details. Worse, the death of Holmes also happens off the page. All this material has huge potential. Conan Doyle, and his readers, just need someone to come along and exploit it.

That’s Where Moffat and Gatiss and Their “Sherlock” Comes In

Perhaps the reason Sherlock Holmes is so enduring in adaptation is precisely because Arthur Conan Doyle’s source material is so full of untapped possibility. In any case, along come Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss – the latest in a long succession of people to take on the job – and succeed brilliantly.

First, they add a layer of internal conflict to the stories by filling out the characters and making their emotions drive the stories as much as the criminal mysteries. Holmes isn’t a natural candidate for the role, but Watson with his war experience and manifest loneliness is.

Moffat and Gatiss bring that loneliness forward, use it to help us understand how the friendship between Watson and Holmes developed so quickly, and most importantly make Watson the main character of their stories and his friendship with Holmes the show’s great beating heart. (I should say that Martin Freeman gets equal credit for the success.) Doyle gave us stories that entertain and delight. Moffat and Gatiss make Sherlock move us as well.

They get even more out of their adaptation of Mycroft Holmes. They add the perfectly logical deduction of sibling conflict between Mycroft and Sherlock; give the brothers contrasting yet similarly cold temperaments; and follow-up on Conan Doyle’s hint that Mycroft “is the British government” and make him England’s spy-master which opens up a rich vein of new conflicts and stories to pursue.

The espionage thriller aspects of Sherlock work particularly well with the increased role Moriarty plays in these stories (an idea that long pre-dates Moffat and Gatiss of course). Moriarty runs a vast, shadowy international criminal conspiracy which in technique and operations is largely indistinguishable from a nation-state’s intelligence service or for that matter a terrorist group. All three run themselves in similar ways: it is their motives and goals that differ.

So Moffat and Gatiss use Mycroft and Moriarty to produce both long-arc conflicts, that is plots that arc through a season or several seasons and tie the whole show together, and as drivers within individual shows, which each have a beginning, middle, and satisfying end. (Well, except for the Hound of the Baskerville’s episode, to my tastes.) Watson plays a similar role, with the emotions of his character producing both long-arc and short-arc conflicts.

I like Moffat and Gatiss’ updating just fine too, although I suppose I can see the point of those people who think it is “gimmicky”.  But to set the stories in modern London, you really do have to lay aside Holmes’ dependence on tobacco and cocaine, and you really do have to add cell phones, the internet, and texting.

I also like the “flashy” or “showy” editing, when the scene goes slow-motion and text labels and assorted graphics fly across the screen to illustrate Holmes’ thoughts. These are gimmicks. But they also solve the problem of having Watson ask, “My god, Holmes, how did you figure that out?” and Holmes saying “Elementary, my dear Watson ….” I think we all have had enough of that, haven’t we?

Then there is the running joke about Holmes and Watson being gay. On the one hand, I confess to thinking it is sort of funny. On the other, I’m beginning to think that cheerful jokes about homosexuality are as reactionary as the homophobia still rampant in America and elsewhere. After all, on the most essential level, it should be irrelevant whether Watson and Holmes are or aren’t gay. What is essential is that they care for each other.

Maybe the most interesting question of all is “Why does Sherlock Holmes continue to be so popular?” There must be something about the character that resonates deep in the culture. I have no answer, currently. Maybe after I watch Season 3 I will. Can’t wait to start!

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