002 – Sherlock, “The Empty House”

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now you can see what’s got the tumblr folks so riled up

Anticipation for series three of Sherlock has been mounting ever since the final credits rolled in series two’s finale, “The Reichenbach Fall.” For those who had been onboard since the begining the wait was interminable, and the added voices of those people discovering the show for the first time during the two year hiatus only made things more frustrating. In that time the show has taken on a life all its own, outside of what is portrayed on screen. Benedict has his Cumberbitches (I use the term out of pure fascinating with such a moniker), both lead actors have become movie stars, and tumblr has basically turned into a Sherlock/Watson-slash-fiction delivery system. With all of this pressure it falls to writer and co-creator (and Mycroft Holmes portrayer) Mark Gatiss to craft a story that satisfies everyone’s expectations. Instead he chose to troll the audience.

Well, not entirely. Without spoiling too much, the episode depicts the presumed-deceased Sherlock Holmes’ (Benedict Cumberbatch) return to lives of the people he cares about. Sherlock has returned to put an end to a terrorist plot with the help of his mostly-constant companion, Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman), whose assistance usually consists of following Sherlock around and quipping.

The basic structure of the show (Watson always trailing a few steps behind Sherlock) doesn’t offend; it is what has always been good about the show – hell, it’s the same thing the books always were. But this episode in particular luxuriates in that concept a little too much. The mystery of how Sherlock did what he did is as central to the episode as the terrorist plot. There’s no problem with that concept in general, but the episode just wastes too much time on it without doing anything really interesting. It is most successful in this endeavor in the first 5 minutes, but everything after that feels like an unearned victory lap. It is all presumably in the interest of character development, but it comes across more as fan service.

Sherlock has always been more about the characters than the mystery, but this episode takes it a little too far. The terrorist plot accounts for maybe one-fifth of the narrative; the rest of the episode is mostly people reacting to Sherlock’s presence. This yields some nice moments, especially with Watson, Mycroft, and morgue assistant Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey). But there is a lot wheel-spinning in the episode. Perhaps it is meant to elicit love from the tumblr hordes.

This episode has some good things to say about relationships between family members and friends, and even some fun insight on Internet culture, but this is an example (much like series two’s “The Hounds of Baskerville”) of the 90 minute runtime being more of a hindrance than a help. A shorter episode – focused solely on Sherlock’s return – would have been really succesful, but instead the episode’s mystery is thrown it to pad out the runtime.

I’m being a little hard on the episode, but that is exactly what the writers expected. So why not give it to them? There is a lot to like here, but it gets brought down from time to time. Amanda Abbington is a good addition to the cast as Mary Morstan, and I look forward to seeing more of her in next week’s “event” episode.

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