I'm not at all in favor of government regulating television any more than it already does, but, really, someone ought to pass a law demanding that PBS offer more than a paltry three episodes a year of the crazy brilliant series Sherlock on Masterpiece Mystery!
I can almost guarantee that by the finale of the third new episode, on May 20, you'll be jonesing badly for more — and not just because of the cliffhanger ending.
All three of the new episodes, beginning Sunday and continuing for the next two Sundays, simply crackle with imagination, great writing and directing, and superior performances from leads Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson.
This so-called "season" — which probably should be called a miniseries in three acts — finds show creators Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss recasting three classic Holmes tales in modern times, with modern sensibilities and technology.
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A Scandal in Bohemia becomes "A Scandal in Belgravia" in the first new episode, with Holmes and Watson dealing with a blackmail case centering on dominatrix Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), who has compromising photos in her camera phone of a member of England's most powerful family. Guess who that might be, and don't trip over the corgis on your way to an answer.
But, of course, we can't dive into the new story until Moffat and Gatiss lead us off the cliff we've been hanging from since the end of last season, when Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott) was about to blow up our heroes by the side of an indoor swimming pool.
As riveting as the first of the new episodes is, can you even imagine trying to adapt The Hound of the Baskervilles for the 21st century? The story of a gigantic, red-eyed hound haunting the moors around the estate of Sir Charles Baskerville, whose family was said to have been cursed, was the third of four Holmes novels by Arthur Conan Doyle.
In the modernized version, the story becomes The Hounds of Baskerville and focuses on a young man named Henry Knight (Russell Tovey) who, as a boy, allegedly saw his father torn to shreds in front of him by a huge hound. This time, Baskerville is the name of a top-secret government military base with an animal research lab. Could the hound be some genetically engineered mutant from Baskerville?
One of the most famous Holmes stories of all becomes fodder for the third of the new shows. Conan Doyle fans know what happens at the end of The Final Problem, when the author tried to end his wildly popular Holmes series at Reichenbach Falls. The BBC/PBS version of that story becomes The Reichenbach Fall, singular. There is a falls, represented in a painting by Turner. But the fall of the title doesn't involve rushing water, and that's all I'll say about it.
Once again, the dazzle of the new Sherlock series is how the writers adhere adoringly to the original texts while entirely modernizing them. As impossible as that might seem, Moffat, Gatiss and fellow writer Steve Thompson pull it off so deftly, it is useful to listen carefully to the seeming asides and throwaway lines to appreciate just how brilliant it is.
But even if you don't know all the in-jokes, you'll easily appreciate the basics of the updating. In Conan Doyle's versions, for example, Watson narrated most of the stories. In the Moffat-Gatiss incarnation, Watson has blogged so much about Holmes that he's made him an unlikely pop culture hero. Holmes wears that deerstalker hat only once because he snatched it from a costume room in a vain hope of avoiding press and fans, now that he's a hero of the blogosphere. But having been photographed in the hat, he's stuck with it in the public's eye, much to his snarling displeasure.
And where Holmes battled addiction to cocaine in Conan Doyle, in the modern world, he's still trying to break his tobacco habit. Wearing multiple nicotine patches last season apparently didn't do the trick.
Sherlock is an electric marriage of great writing with great performances. Cumberbatch is weird and wonderful as Holmes, Freeman dry and sardonic as Watson, and Andrew Scott turns in a stunning tour de force as Moriarty.
If the proof of quality is that a show leaves you craving more, Sherlock has quality to burn. And if Moffat and Gatiss need a full year to come up with three episodes this good, well, I guess we'll just have to live with it. Still, it'll be a long, cold summer, autumn and winter until the next "season."