BBC’s Sherlock reached a pretty definitive conclusion at the end of Season 4. Whether this was because of uncertainty about obtaining a Season 5 or simply a fancy way of closing what was a pretty emotional and tumultuous year for the Baker Street boys, the ending of “The Final Problem” is pretty final, closing all remaining loose ends and leaving Holmes and Watson to their case files — including, apparently, the “Dancing Men.”
But Sherlock has always been unusual in the TV world because of its structure. The show only runs three episodes per season, with each episode running 90 minutes long. It is an unusual approach to making television, but it paid off handsomely in the first two seasons.
However, while this structure may look freeing in some ways compared to the American model (currently sitting at around 22 episodes a season, give or take), it also has its limitations, and these limitations have slowly become less of a blessing and more of a burden to Sherlock.
While 90 minutes is a solid amount of time to run a story — the runtime is roughly equivalent to two standard episodes of a television series, which tend to be anywhere from 40 to 45 minutes long and three episodes per season is blissfully short compared to shows that run 22 episodes a year, these two factors combined create new challenges for the series.
Ninety minutes of runtime for any filmed piece of work is essentially a film. That means each episode of Sherlock must feel like a film. Furthermore, with only three episodes in a season, each episode must feel like a true, once-in-a-lifetime film event, captivating the audience from beginning to end, because once a TV show is off the air, there’s no guarantee that it will come back.
When this setup works, as for example in “The Great Game,” the Season 1 finale that propels Holmes and Watson through a series of deranged Joker-esque “games” put forth by classic Holmes villain Moriarty, then the show is exciting and engaging. But when an episode alienates or fails to engage the audience, that means one-third of the season has let the viewer down. That fraction is harder to overlook when there are only three episodes a year.
This problem was noticed in the early Sherlock seasons by the fact that the second episodes of Season 1 and Season 2 were both disconnected from the overall narrative and problematic in some way. For example, Season 1’s “The Blind Banker” presents viewers with what the A.V. Club’s review called an “occasional tendency toward lazy Orientalism.” The episode also has no meaningful ties to the character of Moriarty, meaning viewers can skip right from the premiere to “The Great Game” without missing very much.
“The Hounds of Baskerville,” Season 2’s middle episode, feels somewhat unfinished. As IGN’s review of the episode points out, the attempt to adapt Doyle’s classic Holmes novel into the modern era somehow manages to feel like it doesn’t have enough story to cover 90 minutes. The review ultimately labels the episode “passable on its own merits, but inferior in every way” to the previous episode.
The A.V. Club’s review of “Hounds” concurs, pointing out the empty use of tired horror-film tropes such as using a shaky camera to imply danger. Multiple times throughout the episode, this shaky-cam technique is applied, only to have the danger be completely absent. The review goes on to explore how this episode contrasts with what Sherlock typically does so well.
This design flaw was exacerbated by Sherlock’s lengthy absences. The first, second, and third seasons of Sherlock were separated by two years, while three years separated Season 3 from Season 4, with a Christmas special filling the void in 2015. While the long wait times heightened fan reactions to the show’s return, it also heightened expectations, forcing the show to outdo itself over and over again in order to please the audience.
The reactions to Sherlock Season 4 indicate that the BBC series may have finally overstayed its welcome. When the Guardian published an opinion piece saying that the premiere episode had catapulted the series into James Bond territory, co-creator Mark Gatiss responded with a poem alleging that Sherlock Holmes has always been a man of action.
Gatiss has a point: Sherlock’s physicality and capacity for spontaneous action is a focal point of the Robert Downey Jr. films, and the canonical Holmes was no stranger to shock-and-awe tactics to capture criminals. However, overemphasizing one element of the Holmes canon can create a tunnel-vision approach to the character, one that abandons Sherlock’s infinite complexities and contradictions in favor of a simplistic approach which denies the character’s humanity, or else sacrifices it in the name of plot progress.
Additionally, after the Season 4 finale aired, Louise Brealey, the actress who portrays Sherlock’s lovelorn assistant Molly Hooper, found herself defending the character’s tense, emotional “I love you” scene while disagreeing with Steven Moffat’s comments about the scene, pulled from an interview with Entertainment Weekly.
Taken together, these responses indicate that Sherlock is having a harder time crafting stories that can please Holmes fans and television fans alike. If the series comes back for a fifth year, then by the time it does return (2019 at the earliest if the pattern holds), Sherlock may well have been forgotten in favor of whatever new, zeitgeist-y mystery show is airing that year.
Moffat, Gatiss, and the BBC have yet to confirm Sherlock’s renewal. According to the Independent, the ratings for “The Final Problem” were the lowest the show has ever seen. While that doesn’t necessarily imply the show is on its deathbed, it does mean that a renewal is less likely, as the BBC will have to decide whether or not the show can continue to draw audiences. Organizing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s busy schedules is also a serious consideration.
Honestly, Sherlock’s Season 4 finale is a fitting end to the series. As Gatiss pointed out at a screening of the finale (per Deadline), there are no cliffhangers to resolve for the first time in Sherlock finale history. This means that allowing the show to exit the stage quietly is possible. It may be time at last for the BBC to consider that possibility.
[Featured Image by BBC]