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A paltry number of things on television are as exciting as a new season of Sherlock — and if you haven’t seen the first two tragically short seasons, then do everything in your power to right that wrong this minute — so the long-awaited 90-minute first episode, premiering Jan. 19 on PBS, has a kids-on-Christmas-like anticipation to it.
It does not disappoint.
The PBS/BBC franchise has been both an enormously popular show and a critical darling, owing in equal measures to the writing of co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss (Doctor Who), the acting of Benedict Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) and Martin Freeman (The Hobbit), and an ambitious/playful approach to the visual presentation. The deftness of the latter deserves more credit than it often gets, but the combination of all three make Sherlock one of television’s best amalgamations of high-end excellence and pure entertainment.
It probably doesn’t hurt that the seasons are so short, three 90-minute mini-movies each — with the first two seasons ended in cliff-hangers. The biggest of those was last season’s apparent death of Holmes, which was an elaborate ruse to one-up nemesis Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott). But of course Holmes didn’t die — you don’t kill the golden goose, silly. What remains to be revealed is how “the fall” was pulled off and, more important, the emotional toll it took on Watson.
The first episode of season three — “The Empty Hearse,” written by Gatiss — absolutely nails a fine balancing act in Watson’s reaction to Sherlock being alive (after being presumably dead for two years) by making the scenes play out with a mixture of anger and comedy. That’s a tough tone to pull off because poor Watson, long-suffering in many ways as he works with the difficult genius Sherlock Holmes, would be understandably angry first and relieved second, but the trick is to not sell short the first emotion, because the duo’s relationship is the absolute core of this series.
Sherlock has always been a fine mixture of suspense, wit and thrills that has chosen to keep the warm and rewarding relationship between the two central characters at a distance from sappiness, while at the same time proving every episode that theirs is a friendship beyond the norm. So, you can’t trick poor Watson (even if it was to save his life) for two full years, letting him mourn, changing him through the course of days, and then just laugh it off. It has to feel real. And it does. But boy, there’s a lot of laughs to be had when Sherlock can’t quite bring himself to admit there was a cruel element to it all.
Maybe that’s why “The Empty Hearse” seems like an especially memorable and important episode of Sherlock. The case at the center of it is both solidly constructed and entertaining (and, more important, it leaves a number of unfinished strands to follow up and expand on), but the majority of the episode is devoted to the emotional fallout of the season-two finale. There’s something there not only for Watson (who has a very significant other now), but also for the selfish Sherlock to ponder his relationship with Watson (and, still further, his relationship with brother Mycroft, played by Gatiss). It’s one of the most inward-looking episodes Sherlock has done.
Not to be lost in how wonderful and rewarding all of that is to witness, the case at hand is also intriguing and floats by with the aforementioned stunning visuals (word graphics, fast-acting reactions used to illustrate Sherlock’s key powers of deduction through the portal of his eyes) and an upbeat sense of movement. What Gatiss and Moffat are particularly adept at as writers is subtly introducing brief scenes that at first seem to go nowhere but no doubt will have a huge impact in further episodes. If the notion is that Sherlock misses almost nothing, it’s a nice conceit that the writers understand that he might take in observations that are either dismissed or are not fully developed at the time, but will prove important in coming episodes. The key is not to linger on them long enough to hear the anvil dropping — and the writers are particularly keen on when to end that beat.
So, yes, Sherlock is back as brilliant as ever and there’s joy and entertainment and superb craftsmanship abounding in this first episode (you might feel like clapping in appreciation when it ends), but there’s also the promise of more goodness ahead.
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