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Sherlock Holmes lives.
The British series Sherlock returns to the small screen two years after the titular genius detective (Benedict Cumberbatch) faked his own death to save the lives of those closest to him — namely partner-in-crime Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman). But how did Sherlock pull it off? As the numerous promos, trailers and a mini-episode have foretold, the world is about to get turned upside down after news of Sherlock’s unexpected resurrection spreads.
Earlier this year, The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Sherlock co-creator Steven Moffat, also an executive producer on Doctor Who, to chat about the popularity of BBC/PBS’ Sherlock, reflecting on the first two seasons, the show’s female fans and offering a glimpse of the upcoming batch of episodes.
Sherlock has received an incredible response in the U.S. What was it like to see the series cross over so well?
It’s extraordinary. It was very, very exciting. Because we had done a couple of events before, we sort of realized it had crossed that line. It was extraordinary for us because we’re used to dealing with British people frankly, so to have an audience here is extremely humbling. The screenings we’ve done of Sherlock in Britain have always been very animated, but it was very exciting to see thousands of people [in Ballroom 20 at Comic-Con] screaming and hooting during [Sherlock’s] best-man speech.
When did you first realize Sherlock had passionate U.S. fans?
In general, these things move so quickly these days. It became a very big hit in Britain very, very fast, and probably a screening we went to in New York for some of [season-two episode] “A Scandal in Belgravia.” It was the first 35 minutes before it went out, and I remember the response we were getting was a big surprise. [Co-creator] Mark [Gatiss] and I were thinking, “Well, that’s the response we’re getting, people will chase Benedict down the street.” If I mentioned Sherlock in passing for Doctor Who, I would get these huge shouts — that was when I realized it was approaching Doctor Who scale.
This past season posed many questions following the events of “The Reichenbach Fall.” As a writer and producer, do you strive for cliffhangers at every possible opportunity?
Yeah, I think it’s a great way to get people to come back next week, frankly, or next year or two years. I think cliffhangers are good. You can do too many of them and I don’t think you can do them all the time, but because we ended the first series with a cliffhanger — that people made a fuss about, but that I thought wasn’t that huge — we just decided to go mental with the cliffhanger on the second series. You can’t do that every time, nor will we, because it will become repetitive and become predictable. Of course, it’s exciting for the audience that’s still buzzing about the show and thinking about the show, as opposed to the show fading away.
Is there a challenge within that, to create a perfect moment that will keep people talking for months on end?
I don’t think there’s a particular formula, no. If there was a formula, it would be predictable and really obvious. At different moments in the story, you’re looking to engage and shock the audience. I do want an ending that stays with people, that people think about. I don’t think I have a particular approach to that.
Sherlock seasons are pretty short compared to other TV dramas. How much willingness is there on your end to expand a season to more than three 90-minute episodes should that opportunity arise?
What has worked for us so well is the 90 minutes that we will make every so often. That’s worked tremendously well as a formula for us. It’s extended the life of the show. If we were doing longer runs of Sherlock it would be over now and the stars wouldn’t be available. But because we’re doing shorter runs, Sherlock can go on for a very long time. A concentration of quality rather than a vast number of episodes is our aim. It’s like a show with no filler is what we’re trying to be.
Is that what you think TV should strive to be in the future?
In the future, why not? Things are going to change hugely. We can reimagine what TV is going to be like. It’s going to be all downloads, it’s going to be all iPlayer and that kind of thing. My kids don’t even bother watching on their television sets; they watch downloads on their iPlayer so that generation — who are only nine, 10 years of being grown up — are not even watching television the way we do it. The traditional model of a television show is you do it for about five years and you make a huge number of episodes, you completely drain it dry and you walk away, never making it again. That’s not the only model. Why not make a series that you can make over 20, 30 years — much more spread out? Why not do it that way? Novel series work that way, the James Bond film series has done very well working that way. Why does everything have to be about quantity? That’s partly because of the model that used to exist in America, that probably still does. I don’t think it’s going to stay the same. It can stay the same.
Has the fact that people are consuming content on iPads and mobile devices affected the way you shoot Sherlock?
In general, the only way it’s affected how we shoot visually at the moment is that the standard has to be vastly higher and indeed it is. They have to be movies, down to the cinematography, because the screens — whether it’s an iPad or whether it’s your big, lovely television screen — are so much better than they used to be that there can’t be an aesthetic distinction between what’s good enough for the cinema and what is good enough for the TV screen. And there isn’t anymore. It is going to change in ways we don’t predict. The next generation is going to have no notion of schedule television or when we’re supposed to watch television or when the television thinks we should. It will be a very different world and I think a better one.
Going back to the first two seasons of Sherlock, was there a moment that defined what the show was?
Probably. We shot “The Great Game” first, which was the third episode in the first series, and there was a scene at the end of “The Great Game” where [Jim] Moriarty [played by Andrew Scott] makes his first appearance and we had to cut that together quite quickly. That was within the first week [of production]. It was just so electric and thrilling. It didn’t mean we thought it was going to be a great hit, we thought we were making a great television show and this would get 3 million viewers and a couple of awards. We didn’t think we’d get 15 million viewers and 60 awards.
What has changed the most from inception to where the series is now?
I’m quite surprised by how emotional Sherlock‘s become. People engage hugely. People’s hearts break for Sherlock, which might be the first time that’s been done since the original stories. People are quite emotional about it. Even the comedic scene [from Watson’s wedding from season three] that we showed [at Comic-Con], people were sniffling away at Sherlock’s speech. It’s interesting. Also, it’s got such a huge female following. The original [Sir Arthur Conan Doyle] stories had a huge female following, which I’d never forgotten, and that’s because the Victorian ladies liked the way Sherlock looked. (Laughs.) So I thought, use this massively exciting, rather handsome man who could see right through your heart and have no interest … of course, he’s going to be a sex god! I think we pitched that character right. I think our female fan base all believe that they’ll be the one to melt that glacier. They’re all wrong — nothing will melt that glacier.
Were you truly surprised, though, with Benedict in the main role and even Martin as Watson?
When we cast Benedict — and this is the absolute truth — people were like, “You should go more handsome.”
Oh god, yes. Absolutely! Because he’s a slightly strange-looking man. If you look at him — his career before Sherlock — he was playing Stephen Hawking, he was playing unpleasant people, he was not playing leading men. Everyone loved the idea of Benedict as Sherlock Holmes because he’s a distinguished, revered actor — he was not a heartthrob at all. And yet somehow, putting that coat and that scarf on him turns him into a heartthrob. If you look at him from series one to series two — because he’s talk of the walk — that becomes more apparent. He certainly becomes a lot more dashing. There’s a quality to be seen in success that makes people more attractive. (Laughs.)
What are you most excited for viewers to see in season three?
We’re excited about all of it. Episode one [titled “The Empty Hearse”] is an absolute stormer. That’s the reunion between Sherlock and Watson, and the solution to the riddle. It’s hilarious and moving and fast-paced, and it’s got one of my favorite scenes ever written on Sherlock. Episode two is a very different episode, quite different from any other Sherlock we’ve ever seen: [Watson’s] wedding. It’s so unusual, and Mark and I were very thrilled by that. I don’t think there’s a mystery at all for the first half hour. That clip we showed [at Comic-Con] of the wedding speech and Sherlock being confused about being best man, a lot of the episode comes from that angle: Sherlock, as a fish out of water, trying to cope with a massive social situation that he’s not really accomplished at. Ever since I was a little boy, I always wanted to do it. It was obvious Dr. Watson only had one friend and Sherlock Holmes must’ve been the best man. What was that like? I think we’ve delivered handsomely on that. We have a new villain [Charles Augustus Magnussen, played by Lars Mikkelsen], and hopefully a heart-stopping finale. I would say that the heartbreak and the excitement remains the same, but it’s probably funnier. I think Benedict and Martin relaxed into the roles and it’s probably the funniest Sherlock Holmes has ever been.
How much discussion was there between you and Mark about how to approach Sherlock and Watson’s reunion?
That was a big thing. We talked about it endlessly, about how we were going to do it. We both pored over those moments of how do you do it because it was a big missing link in the original stories, which is what does Dr. Watson think about this? It’s moving and it’s heartbreaking for John to realize he’s been absolutely played because viewed correctly, at the end of “The Reichenbach Fall,” it was utterly chilling because you realize Sherlock’s been outplayed by Moriarty and then in the last frame, you realize he’s outplayed everybody — including Moriarty, who was never even remotely a match for him, and using three old friends to do it. It might be a relief to see him alive … that man is coming back and he’s going to expect the world to be exactly as he’d left it.
Sherlock premieres Jan. 1 on BBC in the U.K. and Jan. 19 on PBS Masterpiece in the U.S.
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