OK, so it's January and we're waiting for Sherlock to come back. How did he escape death? By the end of the new season we still wouldn't be sure. But it would still be the best thing on British TV, wouldn't it? Well, by the end of the season yes it would. This involved, though, some televisual sleight of hand and I'm not altogether convinced it worked. The best way to explain this is through a rundown of the first couple of episodes and a look at how they resolved it.
The Empty Hearse Sherlock is back – this is good news. We knew he was coming and we knew there was a complex explanation en route, and in the event we get three, mostly played for laughs. Writer Steven Moffatt is playing with us. We also get to meet John's new fiance and it all gets a bit pally. There's a new lightness in the air and the crime to solve, when it finally arrives, really isn't all that dramatic. A bomb on a train under Parliament? Is that it? And the resolution... well, we might have hoped for it to be played a bit straighter. Character, performance, all of these are done well but some of the tension has gone.
The Sign of Three This is the episode almost exclusively played for laughs. John is about to marry Mary, Sherlock is best man, his speech is a train wreck and of course there's a crime to solve at the wedding. Eventually. Cumberbatch is a great comedian and Mrs. Hudson's put-down when the two arrive drunk after John's stag night is a great one – but in terms of thrills this has become completely sterile by now. Episode 3 is going to have to be a masterpiece to sort this lot out – we've even got Cumberbatch's real life parents turning up as Sherlock's mum and dad, this is all getting a bit indulgent.
It's actually left to episode 3, His Last Vow, to carry the whole season and in the event it does so. Brilliantly. Without wanting to give two much away, one of the plot twists renders a lot of the bonhomie of the previous two episodes null and void. You have to ask: what have I actually been watching? A lot of banter or a brilliant piece of misdirection, leading everyone to suspect that all was well when in fact the tension was right in front of us - we just didn't see it? The first two episodes are entirely different once you know what's coming.
There's misdirection aplenty in the final episode too. Moffatt is still playing with us - he knows we've been reading about Google Glass so he has some fun with it (he also knows we're getting used to some of the visual flourishes on Sherlock, so he mucks about with them as well). Performances, always good, are suddenly sublime again. And that ending – a complete double whammy, two unexpected elements and a great big "How will they..?"
For me this was still not quite enough. Episode 2, even denuded of its surface jollity, is still more than slightly self-indulgent. The bomb on the train in part 1 is still a bit routine. Episode 3 does a lot to turn it around but the idea that the previous two instalments were basically a conjuring trick played on the audience is just a bit too clever-clever. And I'm sorry guys, but fingering your noses at anyone who actually wants to know why Sherlock isn't dead isn't really good enough – we needed closure on that.
Next time I hope they'll bring it back down to earth with some solid storytelling. This time around they played us just that bit too much, hence the comparatively low score.
EXTRAS ★★★★ Some decent extras in here. The Fall elaborates on how they filmed the various explanations for Sherlock's apparent death; Fans, Villains and Speculation basically looks at the story development process and Shooting Sherlock accounts for how one scene in particular was filmed, in which Sherlock gets shot by...you know who, if you've seen it, and I'm not wrecking it for you if you haven't. Also trailers for some other stuff.