Sherlock’s Season Four ended in a cloud of explosions, hijackings, a rash of supervillains as well as yet another fruit of Mummy and Daddy Holmes’s wonky loins. The instant it ended, it was clear that The Great Sherlock Backlash was well under way. Even the normally slavishly loyal British media decried the show’s attempts to out-Bond Bond, and the words ‘jumping’ and ‘shark’ were tossed about like dinghies in a gale. Of course, Mofftiss’ defenders were quick to go to the mattresses as well, screeching ‘YOU JUST DON’T GET IT’ in various forms, again and again and again.
Of course, both camps miss the point. Critics of the show’s fourth season likely do get it. They just don’t like it. And to critics of the show’s fourth season: almost all the stuff that irks you about the fourth season? The implausibility? The pushing of sizzle over steak? The lack of actual detective work? The self-mythologising? That’s all been there – I would argue from the start, but for sure since Season Two. I don’t really blame Mofftiss for their bewilderment at the critical snarling. They’re only giving the viewing public more of what they said they wanted. More icing on the cake. More whipped cream. More gravy. How come suddenly it’s being sent back to the kitchen?
And may apparently never come back, if reports are to be believed. Cumberbatch and Freeman are off following slightly different but still exciting career trajectories, and will likely be difficult to get in a room together. Certainly the Season Four finale ended in such a way as to wrap up the show itself.
But nobody has said definitively – yet – that the show’s never coming back. And let me make a confession: for all its (many, many, MANY) faults, I actually liked this season better than the unpleasant, preening, intellectually vacuous Season Three. It at least picked up the occasional interesting concept from time to time…before being distracted in about five seconds and proudly showing off a Sherlock put-down that was fully sixty per cent less clever than it thought it was. And Cucumber and Mars Bar are as good as ever. So, if there will ever be a Season Five, here’s how to fix Sherlock:
- Stay off the internet: Sherlock started out as loving fanfiction to the Sherlock Holmes canon. Then came Season Two, and a creeping sense came over me that the show had discovered tumblr memes. Come Season Three, and Sherlock was essentially fanfic of itself making fanfic of itself making fanfic of itself. Sentient fanfic. The singularity. Which may be interesting from the point of view of Artificial Intelligence, but was disastrous from the point of view of real intelligence. And staying off the internet may also help your relationship with your fans? Because….sane, well-adjusted people definitely write poems to critics.
- Get back to Sherlock and John having adventures together: and I do mean together. The original stories always worked better when Holmes and Watson were running around London together, or communicating in some way. And that is if anything even more true of Sherlock.
- A Study in Pink set the tone by telling the story of how John and Sherlock found each other. Even when the actual mysteries wobbled (which was basically always, let’s be honest), Season One kept John and Sherlock’s prickly, laconic buddy chemistry front and centre.
- Since Season Two, the show has effectively sidelined John as a companion and equal partner narratively, in favour of Sherlock’s (boring) neuroses or God complex, or his (boring) pissing contests with the Supervillain Du Jour. Season Four nightmarishly tried to substitute Mary (Sue) Watson as Sherlock’s preferred sidekick – only to neutralise her moments later anyway.
- Worst of all, the show has decided that John’s only role is to be Sherlock’s token of humanity, or a bargaining chip in one of the aforementioned pissing contests with a supervillain. It is a catastrophic waste of an interesting character, a damn fine actor, and the crackling chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman.
- Let’s be clear, show: Cumberbatch and Freeman, giggling and bantering together, is the number one thing that you’ve got going for you. Do. Not. Fritter it away.
- More crime-solving, less soap opera: Okay, I know Sherlock’s never really been a detective story. But it did hit on a balance between crime-solving, adventure and buddy moments in its earlier episodes. Do you remember those Sherlock scans and his rapid-fire deductions? Remember when they featured more than, like, once or twice an episode? Remember when the show used to even somewhat pretend that you could play along with the deductions? Remember when Sherlock used to solve interesting crimes that didn’t always centre back to himself, or his own childhood trauma? Which brings me to…
- Crawl out of Sherlock’s shapely bumhole: I’ve hit on this before, but it’s worth repeating. Once Sherlock started being about Sherlock, it plunged headlong into a swamp of cliché and melodrama from which it may honestly never recover. And the reason for that is quite simple: Sherlock is not actually an interesting character in and of himself. Let’s think about this.
- Sherlock Holmes is a clever fellow who embraces technology and uses seemingly-insignificant data in interesting ways to solve crimes. Sure, that’s not boring. But you know when it’s not boring? In the context of actual crimes and puzzles. And, as I’ve just said, it’s been a while since crime – just crime, you know, instead of Epic Battles Between Sherlock And His Demons – featured on the show.
- And yes, for the love of God, stop making every. Bloody. Case. About Sherlock in some way. It is really getting to something when a spanking-new Holmes sibling has to be invented just to pout and push her toys out of her pram for a tender hug from her big brother.
- Yes, sure, Sherlock is impatient of sex or romance. But guess what? That is not pathological. It is neither uncommon, or fucked-up, or interesting enough to require explanation or psychoanalysing. I get that if you fancy Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, you want to think that he could fancy you back. But trust me, if I want to fantasise about Benedict Cumberbatch, I will do so even if a fictional character that he plays on the telly is not interested in sex. Insofar as I am fantasising about a fictional character, I can do the work to ‘unlock’ his libido even without being given some sort of narrative permission to do so. It’s okay. It’s sweet of you to be concerned, Mofftiss, but my own libido doesn’t need that much help.
- And you know what, Mofftiss? I think you sense that ‘So, does Sherlock fuck or what?’ is not actually a fascinating conundrum. Which is why you soup up Sherlock’s supposed sociopathy from time to time. Which brings me to….
- Consequences for Sherlock, please: Sherlock experiments on his supposedly only friend without his knowledge or, obviously, consent. He is never called on this. Sherlock lies to said only friend, fucks off for two years, lies about the peril they are in to extract forgiveness from his friend and is completely unrepentant. He is never called on this, either. Sherlock barters state secrets for an at-large assassin and resolves the stand-off by committing cold-blooded murder. He is never called on this. Are you seeing a pattern here? As in: at no point does anyone actually rake the little fucker over the coals for his dangerous irresponsibility or his preening self-regard. It’s a bit hard for me to take anything that the little shit says or does remotely seriously, if I know that the resident Creator’s Pet will never suffer a consequence. Which means that all I am watching is a tall douchebag abusing a series of interchangeable punching bags basically at random, but occasionally pulling out the Bambi eyes and childhood trauma to make it all okay. But after about…oh, three cycles of this, I take neither the abuse nor the Bambi eyes seriously. It’s all happening in some sort of emotional vacuum. Which is a bit of a problem in a soap opera, by the way. Which, in case you haven’t noticed, is what you’re writing.
- John Watson is a much better soap opera candidate: I know that you’ve got this lavishly-cheekboned Byronic anti-hero in Sherlock, with his childhood demons and his suspiciously malleable drug-habit, which seemingly only exists to give us a series of picturesque Lotus-Eater poses. I know that you think you’ve invented the Tortured Monster-Fighter trope. I know that you think he’s eleventeen times sexier than the dry Badass Bookworm of the original novels. And who knows? Maybe he is. BUT. In case you’ve forgotten, John Watson is the messed-up war veteran who embraces the new battlefield of London. John Watson is the coolly pragmatic killer. John Watson is the chap with the alcoholic sister. And, incidentally, in the novels, Watson has a possible gambling habit so bad he asks Holmes to lock his cheque book in a drawer. There is real, organic and heartbreaking raw material to explore with John, Moffat and Gatiss – realer and more exciting than the maddening Surprise Sister shit you threw at the wall for Sherlock. And speaking of Eurus…
- No more supervillains, please, I beg you: Moriarty was a bit-player in the novels, whose first appearance was also his last. The Jim Moriarty of the show is a ‘spider’ with a vast network, apparently superhuman guile and resources and an unquenchable obsession with Sherlock (well, why should he be any different from every other character on the show?). It is incredibly difficult to live up to hype that breathless, and Jim does. Not. Manage it. He is a shrieking gurning buffoon whose every utterance makes my skeleton edge away from my skin with sheer embarrassment. I have to brace myself every time he appears on screen, and I suspect a part of me will always want to heave a brick at poor Andrew Scott because of the role.
- And he is still better than Eurus. Jesus, Eurus. Where to even begin. Okay, so Eurus is Sherlock and Mycroft’s baby sister, and apparently so clever that she can read minds and bend anyone to her will and do any. Fucking. Thing. She wants. And what she wants – what she really, really wants – is to play bullshit teenage psychological games with him. And get a hug. A hug. What better token is there of Moffat and Gatiss’s misogyny than that an omnipotent Mephistopheles can be defeated by a hug from her big brother? At least Moriarty had the occasional stab at world domination, or wanting to watch the world burn. A ‘beyond Newton’ level genius, and all she wants is for Sherlock to notice her. Fucking marvellous.
- Listen, supervillains suck. They genuinely, seriously do. There is something tooth-grindingly simplistic about the Great Man theory of wrongdoing – that somehow crime or evil or whatever can be boiled down to one set of character motivations. And it is incredibly difficult to walk the line between the guile, resources and single-minded focus on a mission required to be a large-scale villain, without making them one-note, boringly invincible or laughably beatable. And Mofftiss? Your supervillains? With their obsession with Sherlock and their cringe-inducing posturing? Your supervillains blow like a nor’easter. Just….know your limitations, guys, please? Which reminds me…
- Maybe get rid of all the females in your cast? You can’t write women, Moffat and Gatiss, so you know what? Don’t even try. Why bother? Critics already seem cool with your basically monochrome London, so what’s a little less diversity between friends? With the arguable exception of Janine, every single one of your female characters is a ghastly caricature with no discernible agency or inner life of her own. I’ve already dissed Eurus, so here are some of the others:
- Mrs Hudson is a dotty Old Dear. Her Whimsical Heavy Metal Vacuuming and Drug Dealing past do not count as character shading.
- Molly Hooper is a useless Chew Toy. Her only function seems to be to moon hopelessly over Sherlock and be rebuffed. I swore at the screen when John told Sherlock Molly was the only one who could see through him. Look up the words ‘telling’ in a dictionary. Then look up ‘showing’. Tell me if they mean the same thing. I’ll wait.
- Sally Donovan is an aggressive, jealous shrew. Her only function is to distrust Sherlock and to be resentful of his gifts. Oh, and also to be slut-shamed. Because what better way to prove your feminist credentials, amirite?
- Irene Adler – well, Jesus, where to even start. The simpering ‘dominatrix’ who apparently brings Sherlock low not by outsmarting him, or beating him at his own game, but by….Distracting him with the sexy? And falling for him anyway, even though she’s a lesbian! And being rescued by him! Tee hee!
- Mary Watson is nothing but a Damsel in Distress. This one might be controversial, so let’s review. She’s supposed to be a badass International Assassin, yes? But what is her function in His Last Vow? To have a past that has caught up with her, and to need Sherlock and John’s help. This, by the way, is also her role in The Six Thatchers. That and to sacrifice herself for Sherlock. All that Sherlock and John may bond through grief, and that she may leave arch, pseudo-maternal postcards from the grave ministering to Sherlock’s vanity.
Well, that’s enough to be getting on with, yeah? And as I say, all this is likely moot anyway. But in case it’s not, you have your shopping list.