A friend who used to enjoy Sherlock but now finds it tiresome once said to me that the mystery show's third season, which aired in 2014, was the series disappearing up its own ass.
If that were true (and I think it was), then the New Year's special that kicked off the year 2016 was the show making its way through the intestines, then setting up shop in its own stomach while preparing a ladder to climb up through its esophagus.
The special, titled "The Abominable Bride," didn't just irritate me; it made me actively angry at how it wasted a great idea in the name of pointless complications and fan service. It could have been a lean and nimble little ghost story, a holiday treat. Instead, it was a self-indulgent mess. To give you five reasons why this is the case, however I'll have to get into some major spoilers — so keep that in mind before you read on.
1) Sherlock's storytelling is more needlessly convoluted than ever
Sherlock is normally set in the modern era, updating and twisting some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous short stories in ways that fit the 2010s. At its best, it's terrific fun, throwing some of the best detective stories ever written in front of a funhouse mirror until they look like goofy versions of their original selves.
"The Abominable Bride" was promoted largely as a fun-loving one-off, a "what if" story. It would take the Sherlock and Watson of this modern adaptation (played, as always, by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, respectively) back to the 1890s setting of Doyle's original stories. Throw in a small segment of the special set at Christmastime, a murderous ghost, and a slew of references to both the TV series and Doyle's stories, and you have the makings of what could become a holiday perennial.
The Victorian London setting is the best thing about "The Abominable Bride." It takes characters we're familiar with in one context, then plops them down in a context we're familiar with for entirely different reasons. And the first half, while a little overwrought (typical for Sherlock), is a fair amount of fun, as Holmes and Watson dance around the idea that the men of London seem to be dying at the hands of a forlorn bride's vengeful ghost.
But the problem comes in the special's second half, when it's revealed to be a dream (and/or hallucination, and/or memory palace visit) conjured up by the brain of the 2014 Sherlock Holmes, in order to figure out how his archnemesis Moriarty could have survived his seeming death in the season two finale. Series creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, responsible for the special's script, tie themselves up in knots trying to solve two separate mysteries in two separate timelines, even while attempting to make both of those mysteries about the same thing (how a seemingly dead person could appear later on).
The modern-day material feels like a tacked-on footnote to the rest of the story, and, worse, it robs the Victorian story of much of its immediacy. Why should we care about the lives or deaths of these characters if they're largely figments of Sherlock's imagination?
2) The "mystery" is far too easy to guess
From the earliest moments of the Victorian portion of "The Abominable Bride," there's a heavy focus on the subjugation of women within British society at the time, up to how ridiculous men think it is that women might ever be allowed the right to vote. Couple this with the idea that the villain seems to be a vengeful ghost clad in a bridal gown, and it seems fairly obvious from the word go that the solution to the mystery will have something to do with the then-nascent suffragist movement.
This is exactly what happens. The "ghost" is actually any number of women who take it upon themselves to get rid of the brutish men in their lives, utilizing the cover of a secret society to do so. Sherlock's brother, Mycroft, who figures it out before anybody else, surmises that the "killer" is right on some level, and the special awkwardly shoehorns in a speech from Sherlock about how women deserve better treatment and voting rights, I guess.
If I were being charitable, I suppose I might argue that this is Sherlock's imagination's attempt to tell one of Watson's stories about the duo's exploits and thus he would miss some of the nuances of the tale. But if that's the case, then whatever message the special was trying to present about storytelling was buried beneath heavy-handed foreshadowing and dozens of references to the show and its fandom.
3) The series really has to stop with the fan service
"Fan service" is when a work of fiction offers up what it thinks the fans really want on a silver platter. It's common to see this in TV series finales, when, say, two people who've never quite gotten their act together finally iron out their differences and fall in love. Fan service doesn't have to be bad, but it's very difficult to do well on a consistent basis.
An alternate definition of fan service could be, "Just watch an episode of Sherlock after its first two seasons." The show has essentially lost any interest in telling mystery stories, or examining its characters' relationships, or even playing around with the sort of visual storytelling it pulled off so deftly in its early going. (It was one of the first productions to figure out how to present text messaging onscreen in a way that was dramatically interesting.)
Instead, it's given in to tossing little nudges and winks to its fans, who are endlessly fascinated with the characters' possible romantic entanglements, especially between Holmes and Watson. Sherlock is less a television show now than it is a collection of potentially GIFable moments, like, say, Sherlock flying through the sky to close out his dream. (Yes, this really happened. It was ostensibly him falling from a great height, but the visual iconography was very Superman. See above.)
4) The series has lost essentially all perspective about Sherlock
Moffat is one of the most gifted TV writers alive when it comes to pure structural wizardry. He can craft a puzzlebox of an episode that will leave you dazzled with the intricate twists and turns involved therein. (Just check out the very first episode of Sherlock to see what I mean.) Heck, he even did this in a romantic sitcom with the very funny British version of Coupling.
But this means his protagonists have a tendency to become strange, alien gods after a few seasons. They're the ones who figure out the puzzle every time, and that means they're so far apart from humanity that they might as well be the Greek gods themselves, tossing down lightning from Olympus. At least on Moffat's other show, Doctor Who, this makes sense. The lead character there really is an alien, one with seemingly total command of time and space.
But it makes less sense on Sherlock, a show that increasingly seems to have no time for anybody who isn't the title character, to the degree that "The Abominable Bride" literally turns every other character into a figment of his imagination. Sherlock Holmes is the smartest and best. He is the only one who can save us. And now that Sherlock has lost all perspective on his character (and those around him), he's a lot less fun to watch.
5) This show is constantly congratulating you for watching it
In its most recent episodes, Sherlock has started committing one of my TV pet peeves: reminding viewers of how smart they are for watching it, while never leaving them room to think for themselves or figure anything out.
This is a common problem for any show that's about super-intelligent people who say super-intelligent things every time they open their mouths. (Essentially every show created by Aaron Sorkin — even the good ones — has run into this predicament at one point or another.) Shows like this pretend that smart storytelling is a simple matter of having smart people act witty and clever, while missing that smart storytelling allows the audience space to fill in some of the blanks.
Sherlock never, ever does this. Everything is explained. Everything is overanalyzed. Everything is beaten to death. To some degree, that's part of the genre the show belongs to. The detective story will always conclude with the detective explaining how the culprit committed the crime. But in Sherlock, that increasingly extends to everything else. There are no stones left unturned. Instead, there's a gleeful madman kicking them into space, then turning to the camera and holding up every slug and slimy thing he finds underneath those stones to say exactly what they're called.
Should you so dare, "The Abominable Bride" is available on PBS.org beginning Monday, January 11, or you can watch its rebroadcast on Sunday, January 10, on PBS.