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‘Sherlock’ is back, and the game is afoot

In a world of instantly streamed international entertainment, we all hold the same remote control. Here's what to point it at

Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock has become nearly as insufferable on screen as his brusque character is to those he exasperates around him.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock has become nearly as insufferable on screen as his brusque character is to those he exasperates around him.

Sherlock first aired seven years ago. Writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss yanked Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective into the modern era with breathtaking flair and ingenuity, obsessively tipping their deerstalker hat to canon, and gifted us with a smugly sociopathic leading man. Played by an Englishman with a preposterously funny name—equal parts Edward Lear limerick and minor Charles Dickens character—we finally had a sleuth unlike any other. And one equal to the herculean name he was entrusted to carry on screen.

The feature-length episodes were brilliant, old familiar stories tossed together as if meant to be, fried up in a deliciously razzmatazz batter. It was, however, in moving away from the known scenarios and backdrops, that Moffat and Gatiss ended up demystifying Doyle’s fantastical sleight of hand, those astonishing scenes of breathtaking deduction which turned out to be deceptively simple. As made too clear by the show, it came merely from writing backward, starting with conclusions and then planting presumptuous clues on the character being looked at by the great man of Baker Street. Moffat and Gatiss took the rabbit out of the hat—or pointed to the hat the rabbit came from—clumsily, in more contrived and mechanical manner than Doyle, making the trick easy to spot, but that mattered less when their show had such panache and held such obvious affection for the originals.

Now, as we watch the show in its fourth leg—airing on Saturdays and Mondays on AXN HD in India—the seams are too visible to ignore, and Benedict Cumberbatch has become nearly as insufferable on screen as his brusque character is to those he exasperates around him. The first season was smashing, the second season gave us thrill and joy (and Irene Adler) even as it bordered on cheesiness and cliché, the third—which brought Holmes back from the dead—tried shamefully hard to be clever and too-cinematic, and ended up unbearably indulgent. Though I will say this: it ages well. Watched a second time, without the impossible pressure of resuscitating the dead, that third season holds many a nugget of detail to smile at, despite the mediocre overall plotlines.

We’re two episodes into the last leg, and the finale being broadcast this Sunday has been proclaimed the last we’ll ever see of the series, and of Cumberbatch as Sherlock. This is not a bad thing, for Cumberbatch, once inseparable from the iconic character, has begun to caricature himself somewhat fierce, and this year it seems merely like we’re watching Dr Strange bumble about pretending to be a drugged detective. It has become the John Watson show—again, not an unwelcome development thanks to the everyman charm and fallibility of Martin Freeman—but this season is more than a bit wonky.

The first episode, The Six Thatchers, is particularly disastrous. It starts fatally, with a Cumberbatch voiceover reciting a badly worded version of the short story The Appointment In Sumarra, reading it out with painful portentousness, as if Somerset Maugham had written it on tea leaves. Things stay ponderous as we watch Watson flirt on a bus and Mary Watson turn into the heroine of the series, even as Holmes flails about unable to execute the vow most vital to him.

The big issue is not the plotting, but the pace, and, more fundamentally, a complete lack of consistency in tone. The creators seem to want Sherlock to suddenly be witty, and aim for surprisingly broad hi-hat laughs, laughs that, embarrassingly enough, never present themselves. This is done, confoundingly enough, alongside the simultaneous attempt to turn the show into a highly melodramatic weepie, with emotionally rife stakes thrown onto the flames of what must have doubtless seemed a once-promising storyline.

The second episode is a darned sight better. Though it still wants to be both funny and sad, this bipolarity is somewhat addressed by an effective, scary-toothed villain. We also have, crucially, the first appearance of a fascinating character we never knew—what a glorious, canon-worthy debut it is—and even though the twists tying her in place are primarily implausible and a bit too show-offy, it is a fine moment when the rug is pulled out from under our feet. Even if many of us saw it coming.

That episode has tilted the deck, however, leaving too many clues and loose ends unresolved going into this year’s finale, The Final Problem. With a problematically ambitious title referring to the most celebrated of Holmes’s exploits—and one they already drew from at length at the end of Season 2 and the start of Season 3—one expects Moffat and Gatiss to blusteringly ride full-tilt at the windmills as they aim to out-do Doyle in their own frequently silly way. Sigh.

Much will be forgiven if the new character continues to stun, but hark, what is that I read? In the time I’ve typed this column it has become clear that this episode will not, after all, mark curtains for the smackhead violinist we all adore, which means the finality of the problem is a mere tease. A fifth season has just been announced by the makers, despite promises to the contrary, and the showrunners are on the verge of playing Moriarty by extending a once-great adventure this long. No wonder last week’s episode was called The Lying Detective.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on and fortnightly in print. Raja Sen tweets at @RajaSen.

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