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The Return of Sherlock

After considerable delay, Sherlock is back on US airwaves, where it will be running on PBS’ “Masterpiece” over the next few weeks. Most people in the US have already watched it, of course, via the miracles of the internet, but for the handful of those who hadn’t, the first episode of the third season ran last night, launching us headlong into the life of Sherlock Holmes post-return from the dead.

With two markedly different Sherlock Holmes shows airing on television right now, it’s tempting to compare and contrast. The BBC version certainly wins the aesthetics war, hands down; it’s filmed in full cinematic splendor, and the episodes are usually marked by an air of artistry, brilliant editing, careful composition, and clever staging. In the season premiere, however, the technical brilliance of the show was a bit more overdone than usual, sometimes interfering with the drama and making it difficult to follow, rather than complementing the programme.

Between the jump cuts, lens flares, deliberately blurred focusing, and other cinematic tricks, it was sometimes very difficult to track the action, and it didn’t feel deliberate or artistic: it just felt like a sloppy, lazy way to attempt to punch up the action and make up for lack of plotting and skill in terms of pacing and dynamism. “The Empty Hearse,” for all its clever naming, was remarkably empty of storyline as well, and it showed in the long, bizarre, disconnected sequences where we were supposed to be so impressed with the camerawork that we could pretend we didn’t notice the problems with the actual episode.

The camerawork here was distracting and evasive, as was the editing. While much of the episode’s structure was clearly intended to be infuriatingly coy (how did the clever boy fake his death?), the decision to carry it through in the presentation was a bit much, unless the goal was to leave viewers so seasick and confused that they couldn’t actually follow anything that was going on. If that was the intended goal, I must say that the art direction was superb, and the team is to be praised for getting it so bang-on.

This should have been an episode about the Holmes-Watson relationship, and the emotional fallout of Holmes’ return. This is the stuff of potentially tremendous television, except that Moffat and the rest of the show’s creative team seems determined to shy away from opportunities to depict their relationship authentically and honestly; the thought of two men having feelings, and having a complex, interesting relationship, seems to be altogether too much for them to handle.

Previous episodes have nervously giggled over the close relationship between the two men and this episode added some gratuitous ‘no homo’ as Watson insisted he wasn’t gay to Mrs. Hudson when she inquired after his new boyfriend. Moffat even managed to get in a snide dig at shippers and fanficcers with a passionate kiss between Holmes and Moriarity in one of the many potential theories posited for how Holmes faked his death. Clearly, the writers aren’t mature enough to handle writing a relationship between two grown men, which makes one wonder if they’re mature enough to be, er, writing television at all.

We rarely saw authentic, raw, emotional interactions between the two men. The series of punches and jump cuts we’re treated to early in the episode when Holmes picks the worst possible time to reveal his return are played more for comedy than reality, and the episode spends the rest of the time skittering around John’s hurt and anger. Even in the subway car, when the two men have a chance at reconciliation and an opportunity to actually have an honest conversation, we learn that Sherlock Holmes is, as always, a callous, nasty, and arrogant jerk, much like Moffat himself, it would appear; indeed, much of the character reads like a strong authorial insertion from a creator who takes a special kind of joy in building simplistic, brutalistic male characters.

Moffat’s women, of course, are little better, though for different reasons. We see Molly here as a wilting lily dragged about on Sherlock’s coattails; she’s an utter Sherlock fangirl, and he uses her rather crudely and harshly, allowing Moffat to make an embedded comment about the character’s (and actor’s) legions of female fans. (Notable, too, that some label themselves the ‘Cumberbitches,’ setting up a rather submissive, exploitative, and sexist relationship in terms of how they relate to the actor and his roles.)

Meanwhile, Mary, who has such potential as a character, has played largely in the background thus far. We barely saw her speak at all, and when she did, it was mostly to say affirming things about the men around her, whether deciding that she liked Sherlock on the basis of a few seconds of interaction, or squealing ‘John’ and looking on haplessly while her boyfriend is trapped inside a Guy Fawkes bonfire as Sherlock does much of the heavy lifting in terms of rescuing him.

Mary could be a saucy, snappy, bright character, much like Molly: both women are clearly highly intelligent and could be self-directed, assertive, and a pleasure to watch. However, this would deprive the men of their precious screen time, and would mean that the men (primarily Sherlock—Watson always takes on a subservient role) wouldn’t have as much of a chance to show off for the women. Thus, both characters are put quietly on the shelf for much of the time, as we need to spend time on more important tasks like moving through a series of blurry jump cuts or making fun of men who like to collect trains.

Mrs. Hudson is also a diluted, dull version of the woman she could and should be. Her most irritatingly stereotyped moment is probably the one in which she shrieks girlishly at Sherlock’s return; such a marked change from one of the few highlights of the episode, when she and John exchange a few quiet, sad words. It would appear that in Moffat’s mythos, even Mrs. Hudson is a worshiper of all things Sherlock.

If the rest of the season runs as this episode did—strangely bland, flat, and largely plotless with long periods of time for Sherlock to prance about like a show pony—it will be curious indeed to see if it can retain its cult-like status.

Photo by Images_of_Money, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license