On Sunday 15th January the BBC aired the final installment of the latest (and, potentially, the last) season of Sherlock, entitled “The Final Problem”. The episode has been met with mixed reviews to say the least, with a feeling of confused disillusionment seeming to be the popular consensus. But why is Sherlock so disappointing of late? What is missing? How have we reached a point when “The Final Problem” is a sadly apt title for a once universally acclaimed programme? Don’t get me wrong, Sherlock is not without its merits: at times the episodes produce clever storylines and sparks of wit that are refreshing and entertaining, the likes of which demonstrate the extreme capability and creativity of the show’s writers. However, these are increasingly few and far between. There are many elements over the years that have contributed to this disillusionment with Sherlock (the infamous slow rate of broadcast being just one of them); however, a steady disregard for authenticity seems to summarise the current problems with the series. The potential cause of Sherlock’s decline can be divided into three interlinked categories: popularity, time, and ambition. In equal measure, these are the ingredients of a great show; too much of each is cause for alarm.
Sherlock became a show that willingly sacrificed its USP (Sherlock Holmes in the present day), for a 2015 Christmas Special set in the 1890s. The episode added practically nothing to the overarching canon of the series, and instead functioned as a 90-minute indulgence for both its writers and its fans. “The Abominable Bride” was, in short, a gimmick – a high-budget, well-written, well-delivered gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless. It may have been enjoyable to watch, but we must ask ourselves whether fan service worth jeopardising the integrity of a beloved show? It is this fan service, however inadvertent it may have been, that has contributed to the degradation of Sherlock over the years, and with more exposure comes more fans to please. More specifically, although an initially British production, aimed at a British audience, the show quickly received (entirely deserved) international attention, and is today particularly popular with American audiences. Consequently, Series 4 of the show seems to exhibit its sheer “Britishness” in a way that achieves stereotypical, even parodic levels, in order to appeal to an American audience – because aren’t British people just so quaint?
We can observe in the writing of Mrs Hudson a small indication of the show’s overall trajectory. In Season One, Mrs Hudson is portrayed as a landlady that can handle Sherlock’s eccentricities with style and sass; she is made more intriguing by the knowledge that she lets Sherlock rent the flat at a lower cost due to his involvement in ensuring her (drug lord) husband’s execution. However, rather than treat the character with the respect Sherlock himself encourages, the show’s writers take an unconventional, yet ultimately believable character, and transforms her into a parody of herself. Whilst entertaining, the reveal in “The Lying Detective” [4×02] that Mrs Hudson was behind the wheels of a spinning Aston Martin during an arguably out-of-place police chase, sacrifices any intriguing character development for a gag. (It’s funny because she’s a sweet old woman, and it’s taking place in boring and quaint suburban London, get it?) Whilst a loveable character, you cannot help but perceive Mrs Hudson’s behaviour as increasingly satirical.
Anyone caught up with “The Final Problem” [4×03] will admit, despite any sort of entertainment value, an innovative update on the original mystery source material it is not. In fact, one would be hard pushed to categorise Sherlock into any one genre at all, and not in a good way. Whilst it attempts to be subversive and clever, at best, we are left with a product that is convoluted and confusing. “The Final Problem” opens with a little girl distressed and alone on a plane where everyone else has mysteriously been rendered unconscious. You could be easily forgiven for mistaking this for an opening sequence of Doctor Who, the beginning to some sci-fi disaster-averting adventure. Next, rather jarringly, Sherlock briefly masquerades as American Horror Story, exhibiting horror motifs such as paintings weeping blood, unsettling children’s laughter, and a creepy killer clown. Revealed to be an elaborate hoax, this directly leads into a scene where Sherlock, Mycroft and John are forced to consider the possibility of their imminent death in the face of a motion-sensor bomb sent by the Holmes’s lost long sister – we even get an epic explosion shot, because, hey, badass right? Flash-forward and Sherlock and John are embracing the pirate life and commandeering a boat. Believe it or not, that’s only the first twenty minutes. Alone, each of these elements could have neatly, and believably, been weaved into a single mystery story reminiscent of Sherlock’s glory days, but together, we are met with Frankenstein’s monster in television form.
Sherlock tried to be too much, and essentially sacrificed its existence as a mystery to be, instead, everything else. It is one thing to subvert genre conventions, but quite another to have little to no direction. One must question whether the lengthy gaps between episodes, as well as increased expectations for each series to outshine the last contributed to Sherlock Holmes becoming James Bond without the womanising. By the end of the series, Mrs Hudson’s Aston Martin demonstrates that the James Bond motif is being spread to every facet of the show.
The basic hallmarks of a mystery plot are that it is filled with clues in order that the reader can attempt to solve the riddle at the same time as the characters, and that a few false clues are thrown in along the way to put them off the scent. But Sherlock has moved so far away from these basics that, by “The Final Problem” it is nigh on impossible to predict the episodes’ outcomes within reason. The show has become a series of impossibly convoluted mysteries, becoming frustrating at times. Sherlock’s own cleverness is pushed beyond the realms of plausibility, and yet we are simultaneously expected to believe that he would fail to notice the missing glass of his sister’s cell? The show forgoes mystery and intrigue in favour of action and melodrama. In what other scenario would the finale’s villain be defeated with…love?
Individual scenes were entertaining, heart-wrenching, and interesting, but the whole they formed was ultimately lacklustre. Sherlock has suffered from its own writers’ ambition: with high levels of exposure and lengthy waits in between seasons, the pressure was on. Consequently, ambitious writers with too much time to write, redraft, and redraft again, led to scripts that were so clever that they were indecipherable and, at times, insufferable. “The Final Problem” was exactly that: a problematic ending to an increasingly problematic programme. To borrow some lines from the penultimate episode:
“It’s not okay.”
“No, but it is what it is.”