John Lavin reviews the third season of BBC’s Sherlock and ponders whether Mark Gatiss has managed the balance between comedy and mystery.
There have been times during this largely excellent third series of Sherlock when Mark Gatiss appears to have slipped back into his role as co-writer for The League of Gentlemen. In episode one, for instance, Dr Watson was hidden in a huge Guy Fawkes-topped bonfire and very nearly burnt alive; something which felt like an echo of the League episode in which a man is disguised as a scarecrow and left for dead by the farmer whose wife he has been sleeping with. (While the children who ask Watson for a ‘penny for the Guy’ at the beginning of the episode recall the sinister content-hints that open so many League episodes, as well of course as the Denton twins, who memorably visit the scarecrow man, refusing to set him free). In episode two, meanwhile, the good doctor walks in on Sherlock using a bunsen burner on a human eyeball (which he subsequently drops into a cup of tea), Molly makes jokes about the owner of a human brain she and Lestrade are nonchalantly peering at, and in the best episode of the series, the hilariously named (for some Doyle and Killing fans, at least) Charles Augustus Magnussen, urinates in the famous Baker Street fireplace. (And although ‘His Last Vow’ was written by Stephen Moffatt, you feel Gatiss’ influence all over this delicious example of Magnussen’s fuck you villainy.)
Indeed when Gatiss gets it right, Sherlock really is comedy genius. There is a plethora of sublimely funny moments throughout the series, not least when Watson physically assaults Holmes, not once but three times, culminating in a beautifully timed Glasgow kiss. This, asides from anything else, is something that needed to be done. The way that Watson meekly accepts Holmes’ return is something that always jarred with me in the original story, ‘The Empty House’ (the Sherlock episode is called ‘The Empty Hearse’ and this is either magnificent or ludicrous, depending on your position; for myself I would describe it as magnificently ludicrous.)
To begin with Doyle has Holmes not only surprise Watson by revealing that he is still alive, but has him disguise himself as an old, hunched over Antiquarian bookseller just to make the shock all the more profound. Suddenly throwing off the disguise and assuming his full height, Holmes laughs and says ‘My dear Watson… I had no idea that you would be so affected.’ Needless to say Watson practically has a heart attack, after which, for me somewhat unbelievably, he forgives Holmes and is instantly eager to know all the details of how his friend escaped ‘out of that awful abyss,’ the Reichenback Falls. There is something plot device-like about this that has always troubled me, something that seems inconsistent with the doctor’s character (even if he would be hardly likely to headbutt Holmes!), something which speaks of Doyle (who lest we forget only brought the Master Detective back due to public pressure) not wanting to waste too much time in giving the public what they wanted.
It strikes me that this is something that had also occurred to Gatiss and Moffatt because they not only have Watson assault Holmes in a restaurant (where he has disguised himself as a waiter in order to, quite shamelessly, shock Watson) but they also have him be (almost) entirely unconcerned with how Holmes escaped ‘from that terrible abyss’, or in this case, how Sherlock managed to survive jumping off a very tall building. A decision which manages to be consistent with Watson’s character, while also being a very good joke at the expense of the internet debate that had sprung up around just how Sherlock had managed to avoid dying. (The conjuring of this debate, incidentally, some one hundred and twenty years after Holmes had grappled with Moriarty in ‘The Final Problem’, sending the readership of The Strand Magazine plummeting into the bargain, represents quite some achievement on the part of Gatiss, Cumberbatch et al.)
But if there is a problem with series three of Sherlock it is that it has become almost too funny in places. Quite frankly, it has, at times, veered into sitcom territory. At its best Gatiss and Moffatt’s show manages to maintain a fine balance between humour and a world of genuinely sinister and baffling crimes. The problem with this series is that the tone has sometimes shifted too firmly in favour of the comedic. In episodes one and especially two (the Watsons’ wedding), the crime solving is very much relegated to the background. Indeed it is only in episode three’s reworking of Doyle’s classic, ‘Charles Augustus Milverton’, that we get a properly scary villain (played with malevolent brilliance by The Killing’s Lars Mikkelsen) and a correspondingly fiendish case to solve.
The problem with the Watson wedding episode (and no, ‘The Sign of Three’ is not a magnificently ludicrous title, it is simply a ludicrous one), is that it goes too far. The humorous possibilities evoked by Sherlock being a best man are clearly too much for Gatiss to resist and so he ultimately over eggs the pudding. To begin with the premise works very well indeed. The section where Watson asks Sherlock to be best man and is met by prolonged, shell-shocked silence is very funny and, as ever, performed to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman (who play off each other to better than ever effect in this series). The problem is that Sherlock’s speech (and you can readily picture Gatiss thinking, imagine Sherlock giving a best man’s speech!), while amusing at first, simply drags on for too long. His recounting of Watson’s stag night (where the crime-solving duo proceed to get wrecked – in a very recognisable Cardiff, incidentally – and to listen, rather magnificently, to ‘Galang’ by M.I.A.) borders on the interminable. Perhaps it is because it comes during the mid-section of the episode, where the crime usually takes over from the Sherlock/ Watson relationship stuff, that the viewer starts to switch off somewhat. Indeed, even though it ends with what should be a priceless gag, in the shape of Sherlock vomiting on the rug in a crime scene, the viewer feels as though he has come so far away from the original concept of Sherlock Holmes that he has lost interest. Really it all feels a bit like some kind of bizarre sleuthing sitcom update of Men Behaving Badly. (Perhaps it shouldn’t be forgotten that Moffatt has form in this area, as the writer of largely appalling 90s’ twentysomething sitcom Coupling).
Another problem is the development of Gatiss’ character, Mycroft. Gatiss recently described Holmes and Mycroft as being like the Crane brothers from Frasier, and while this relationship can be very funny, there are also times when, clearly following the Frasier blueprint as it does, the whole thing can, once again, feel a bit too much like a sitcom. In Doyle’s work Mycroft was only an occasional character but in Series Three of Sherlock (perhaps to fill the void left by Andrew Scott’s Moriarty) he is practically omnipresent. And with this omnipresence there naturally comes more humour as Gatiss is a comic actor. The problem with this is that, due to his increased screen time, Mycroft becomes more and more hammed up in a deeply League of Gentlemen sort of way. (The scene, for instance, where he is running on a treadmill in a pair of seventies trackie bottoms feels like a still from League.)
But for all of this the series has been, by and large, a resounding success. ‘The Empty Hearse’ was a complete riot, ‘The Sign of Three’ flawed but undeniably full of wit and invention, and ‘His Last Vow’, a genuinely gripping crime drama, which returned to the previous, more detection-based highs of ‘A Scandal in Belgravia’ and ‘The Hounds of Baskerville.’ It is when Gatiss and Moffatt get this combination of wit, modernity and the original Doyle stories in such perfect alignment (albeit with a hefty dose of the old Basil Rathbone movies thrown in for good measure), that the series truly soars. Either way, even on an off day, there are few better TV series currently being made in the UK or elsewhere.