Sherlock boldly becomes a heart-warming wedding rom-com. But where can the show go from here?

By James Hibberd
January 27, 2014 at 04:25 AM EST
PBS
S3 E2
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  • TV Show
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Sherlock, as you’ve figured out by now, is a different show this season.

All the pieces are still there and it’s still amazingly entertaining. But the storytelling emphasis has shifted, and that change signals decisions that could have ramifications beyond this episode. Producer Steven Moffat recently said that Sherlock is not a detective show but “a show about a detective.” Which is very true … this season … but wasn’t nearly as much the case the previous two seasons, when the weekly mystery was largely the focus of each episode.

During last week’s premiere, the various mystery threads were shrugged off (Who kidnapped John? Eh, we’ll deal with that later. There’s a bomb? Yeah, but it’s got an “Off” switch, so let’s use that to prank John again). Now this week the crime-drama once again barely registers until the final third, while several beats mock the very sort of mysteries that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. The writers have lately seemed bored by having to deliver what’s supposed to be the show’s framework. Like: When you have talents like Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, why waste them on the usual detective work of analyzing carpet fibers and quizzing potential suspects? The lack of mystery could be its own meta episode: “The Mystery of the Missing Mystery.”

The second major move this year is the show is funnier than ever. “The Empty Hearse” was Sherlock‘s most comic episode and then this week “The Sign of Three” shot way past it. This episode is a comedy, a British rom-com; One Wedding and No Funeral.

Changing a show’s format and tone is somewhat jarring. It’s giving some critics something to snipe about. And yet…

Sherlock is pulling off this caper, so far. Because when you entertain at this high of a level, it’s easy for viewers to ignore the whiplash and hang on for the ride. Watching Sherlock this season is like attending Watson’s wedding and seeing this guy Holmes give his speech as the best man. To the crowd, the speech comes off to as self-indulgent and wildly tangential, he even insults them, and yet he ultimately wins them over because Sherlock — the character and the show — is totally charismatic and hits the right emotional buttons.

The tone shift presents a recap challenge. For example: Tonight’s opening sequence with the Dark Knight-style bank robbers and Lestrade getting all upset is basically just a long wind-up to a single punchline. So instead of the usual recap format running down ever moment, here’s what worked and did not work about this week’s episode:

NEXT: What worked

Here’s what worked:

1. Watson asking Sherlock to be his best man. My favorite scene in the episode, even better than Sherlock’s speech. Have blinks ever been so hilarious as when Sherlock finally realizes John is saying he’s his best friend? “Of course you are,” says Watson.

2. The speech: Particularly this bit, worth printing nearly in full: “The point I’m trying to make is that I am the most unpleasant, rude, ignorant, and all-around obnoxious asshole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet. I am dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful, and uncomprehending in the face of the unhappy. So if I didn’t understand I was being asked to be best man, it is because I never expected to be anyone’s best friend. Certainly not the best friend to the bravest and kindest and wisest human being I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. John, I am a ridiculous man. Redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship. But as I’m apparently your best friend, I cannot congratulate you on your choice of companion. Actually, now I can. Mary, when I say you deserve this man, it is the highest compliment of which I am capable … I know I speak for Mary as well when I say we will never let you down, and we have a lifetime ahead to prove that.” Is it just me or does Benedict, all dressed up in that nice suit with his hair all neat, look a tad like … like … don’t hit me … Joel Osteen? I realize that’s not a flattering comparison, but Osteen is like Benedict’s older less-attractive Texas cousin.

3. Sherlock as a bridesmaid’s wingman. “Mr. Holmes, you’re going to be incredibly useful … can I keep you?” Indeed! If only we could all have our own Sherlocks for everyday purposes. Just imagine having Sherlock Holmes accompany you to the auto mechanic and asking your boss for a raise. So much would be easier with a Sherlock. Mary benefits from this too, asking him cheerfully, “Who else hates me?” as he hands her a prepared list.

4. There’s something about Mary. Only two episodes in and Watson’s partner has effectively broken up the boys’ club without seeming like a buzz-kill. “Neither of us were the first.”

5. Drunk-lock! The stag night sequence shouldn’t have worked — it’s long, it’s surreal, it makes a joke of the show’s usual whole investigative process (more on that later). Yet, again, it’s so entertaining you run along with it, complete with a dubstep Sherlock theme. Particularly liked the Sticky Head Game and Sherlock’s usual on-screen text analysis being drunk-garbled. “The game is … something…” And yes John, you are a pretty lady.

6. This:.

https://24.media.tumblr.com/a4f2f6ba726bbc974613bd0230a43a47/tumblr_mzt8wfL4bc1rvieiho1_500.gif

Also: This Redbeard that Mycroft mentioned. Some obsessive fan analysis about that here.

7. Inside Sherlock’s brain: Easily the best part of tonight’s crime story. Sherlock has always excelled at finding new ways to visually illustrate the detective process. This game-show-like sequence took the process of elimination and made it engaging and gives you a sense of what Sherlock’s thinking without his usual yakking to Watson (plus, nice cameo from Laura Pulver). Notice who lords over Sherlock’s mental chamber, who bosses him around and commands his thoughts? Mycroft, which is perfect. (Fans on Twitter called this Sherlock’s famous Mind Palace but I don’t think it’s the same thing — that’s more like a device for visualizing memorized information).

8. Sherlock revealing Mary’s pregnancy.

9. That telegram hint. One of the telegrams read by Sherlock was from “Cam” and disturbed Mary. “To Mary, lots of love poppet, oodles of love and heaps of good wishes, from Cam. Wish your family could have seen this.” CAM = Charles Augustus Magnussen — this season’s new big bad, who we glimpsed at the end of the the first episode. Though … we keep calling him a “big bad,” but since we don’t really see him in at least two of the three episodes, how big can he really be? And seeing Mary’s unease suggest she’s hiding something in relation to this year’s villain.

NEXT: What did not work

Here’s what did not work:

1. The Bloody Guardsman solution: He was stabbed and marching around … and didn’t even know? I don’t care how tight his belt is, a person would know if he were fatally stabbed in the gut. He definitely wouldn’t take off the belt and start shampooing his hair in the shower without noticing he’s bleeding everywhere (even the flash near the end of the episode acknowledged this, with the guardsman immediately looking alarmed and weak after taking off his belt). And why was the guardsman considered a successful test of this kill-method anyway? The guardsman didn’t die, he was sent to the hospital. I’m not saying an original and brilliant locked-room mystery is easy to create, but with all the exceeding dialogue cleverness on the display it would be nice if the mystery solution was more on par with the rest of the story — they’ve had two years to come up with three of them and the entire Doyle library to tap as inspiration!

2. The potential victim. John’s ex (not previous!) commanding officer didn’t have much of a part to play, mainly looking stiff and stern. It helps a mystery if we care a bit about the victim and he wasn’t particularly interesting despite other characters talking him up. Our biggest concern about a murder at Watson’s wedding was that the memory of his wedding would be spoiled.

3. Watson’s freak-out. Being denied access to a stranger’s corpse in the shower caused the normally cool and slow-burning Watson to practically start screaming, “Let me examine this body!” Just didn’t feel earned (though as it turned out his urgency paid off since the person who found him was wrong about him being dead).

4. The silly walk. Sherlock marching into Buckingham Palace wearing a guardsman’s hat while the theme song played. First: Where did he get the hat? Did he kill a guardsman himself? One of the biggest eye-rolls in the show’s history.

And finally here’s something I’m unsure about: Making Holmes and Watson so deeply and openly affectionate at this point. There has been so much effusive heartfelt mutual praise and warm, fuzzy emoting between the leads during the past couple episodes, it risks draining the show’s central snappy tension. Holmes has almost entirely shredded his “high-functioning sociopath” mask, while Watson is full-on love-bombing his crime-solving soul-mate. When Mrs. Hudson talks about Watson finding the one you really click with, it was momentarily unclear who she’s referring to. If Mary and Sherlock were hanging off a cliff, it feels like Watson would save Sherlock (if only to prevent him from faking his own death again).

So the big question is: Where does Sherlock go from here? Can the show go back to solving weekly mysteries after subverting them so well? Can it switch back to a drama after becoming a comedy? And most of all: How can Sherlock and Watson’s relationship continue to grow when it’s radically gone from prickly friendship in season one to a stronger friendship in season two to a bitter break-up last week and now to a love fest?

I realize I’m setting myself up here for reader reactions like, “What’s wrong with it being funny? What’s wrong with Sherlock and John loving each other? What’s wrong with having a unique episode?” Nothing! There’s nothing wrong with the episode. It’s a great episode. It will probably be many fans’ favorite episode ever. But like Sherlock spoiling a happy occasion by thinking too much about it, I’m says these shifts are interesting to note and come with a potential price tag. Weddings are normally the climax of movie for a reason; they feel like an ending. This episode is the first Sherlock that also felt like a potential series ending. Some fans might not want Sherlock to ever end, but if this was the very last episode, I suspect many would be satisfied. Sherlock and Watson met as broken men. They have both been made largely whole. They solved cases together, and have now deconstructed that process. You can add new spats into their relationship, and you can have them solve more cases (what was in that matchbox?), I’m just unsure if this show can operate at the same level following this natural break-point. This is, at the very least, a challenge for the writers. They are self-aware enough to know this — characters repeatedly referenced that marriage changes things. Even Mycroft (played by writer-producer Mark Gatiss) points this out to Sherlock. And Sherlock says, “I prefer to think of this as the beginning of a new chapter.”

Let’s see how Sherlock tackles that new chapter. We have one more episode before we take our next break. And the game is … something.

Episode Recaps

Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman star in the celebrated U.K. series
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  • 4
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  • 01/19/14
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