Television review

New ‘Sherlock’ the best and wackiest yet

Sherlock: Martin Freeman’s Watson weds, with Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) as his best man.
Sherlock: Martin Freeman’s Watson weds, with Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) as his best man.
Robert Viglasky / PBS

San Francisco Chronicle

If you thought Sherlock Holmes died at the end of last season’s Sherlock, the news that PBS is about to air three new episodes may be confusing.

Holmes, of course, did not die. The show is simply too great to go away, and no one could play the contemporized version of Conan-Doyle’s great sociopath/detective better than Benedict Cumberbatch. Yes, it’s agonizing to wait so long for just three episodes, but, as with the first two seasons, the third is very much worth the wait.

In fact, this is the wackiest trio of Sherlocks ever. The first episode, The Empty Hearse, premiering Sunday night, spends much of its 90 minutes dallying with Holmes’ return, offering various scenarios of how he staged his death and delighting us with how his various friends and colleagues — John Watson (Martin Freeman), Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) and Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves) — react to his “resurrection.”

The Empty Hearse is also the name of a Sherlock fan club whose members are obsessed with deconstructing Holmes’ death, and that’s important, not just because the proffered scenarios for how he “dunnit” came from fans.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that all three new episodes have been lovingly crafted for the more obsessive fans of both the original Conan Doyle creation and the Cumberbatch update created by Steven Moffat ( Doctor Who) and Mark Gatiss, who plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft. The shows are packed with in-jokes, many of which acknowledge legions of obsessed fans, and one that features Cumberbatch’s real-life parents.

The second episode, The Sign of Three, does turn on Holmes solving a mystery, but it almost feels like an afterthought to what could be called “The Sherlock Holmes Comedy Hour.” It’s an unlikely laugh riot as Sherlock serves as best man when John weds Mary (Amanda Abbington, Mr. Selfridge). The best man’s speech is so funny, it could almost be a half-hour sitcom. A very brainy one, but still.

Lest anyone think Sherlock has gone completely off the rails, the third new episode, The Last Vow, airing Feb. 2, is a brain-numbing return to form as Holmes faces a stupefying case about blackmail that’s both high-level and very personal involving the monstrously villainous Charles Augustus Magnusen (Lars Mikkelsen).

The performances are even better than in previous years, with new but fully credible sides of Holmes’ and Watson’s characters. And the writing, by Moffat and Gatiss, is in a league by itself. Other shows may plateau or tread thematic water once they’re successful, but so far, Sherlock has been, and remains, a great show that only gets even better.

Sherlock is hardly the first show to acknowledge its fans, but you’d be hard-pressed to find others that do it quite so extravagantly. However, you do not have to be a Holmes expert to go completely gaga over the new season. All you need is appreciation of perfection.

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