Did Sherlock Lose Its Way When it Abandoned Realism?

Sherlock never needed to be more than the detective melodrama we saw in "The Final Problem"'s final montage.

Warning: This article contains major spoilers for Sherlock season four.

Sherlockstarted out with so much promise. A visually-mesmerizing show starring two of the U.K.’s most talented actors that gave us a modern take on the iconic story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

Unlike so many TV shows, Sherlockseemed to get it right from the beginning (the tone-deaf racism of “The Blind Banker,” notwithstanding). It knew what it was: a drama about two men and their respective emotional baggage. It was fascinating and fun (though not always because, let’s face it, these two have serious emotional baggage) and, above all else, it was grounded in the real world of contemporary London.

This last element was integral to the early success of Sherlockbecause the show’s realistic setting and rules were paired with a sense of wonder and romance that didn’t undermine this realism… At least not at first.

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Post-season two, Sherlockhas strayed from the boundaries of the detective drama genre to become, at different points, a superhero show, a spy drama, and (in “The Final Problem”) a horror. This has undermined the very element of this show that initially made it great.

The romance of reason.

In “‘Clap If You Believe in Sherlock Holmes’: Mass Culture and the Re-Enchantment of Modernity,” scholar Michael Saler argues that Sherlock Holmes’ popularity has always stemmed from the character’s ability to meld “modernity” and “enchantment.” He does this not by traditional genre means (i.e. by using fantasy or science fiction), but by using reason in extraordinary ways.

According to Saler, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing at a time of great cultural pessimism, when many “mourned the apparent absence of communal beliefs and higher ideals in an age that seemed dominated by positivism and materialism.” I think modern viewers might be able to find something they can relate to in this particular anxiety.

Saler writes:

The character of Sherlock Holmes, however, represented and celebrated the central tenets of modernity adumbrated at the time — not just rationalism and secularism, but also urbanism and consumerism. The stories made these tenets magical without introducing magic: Holmes demonstrated how the modern world could be re-enchanted through means entirely consistent with modernity.

This is an attractive idea, right? The modern adult viewer is discerning and needs a more complicated type of fairy tale to give them hope. They need to believe that modernity hasn’t just brought about climate change and fractured nation-states. They need to believe that the tools of modernity can also be used to save us.

This subtle thematic foundation of Sherlockwas present in the first two seasons of the show. It was when Sherlockstarted experimenting with other, less reality-based genres that things went south…

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Sherlock season 3: the superhero show/spy drama.

No one season of Sherlockhas been without its delights. That being said, Sherlockseason three was the first that began to undermine the show’s own rules of reality when Sherlock returned from his three-year “death” a more competent human than when he left. He was not only more physically adept — racing through London on a motorcyle like James Bond to save John Watson from getting burnt to a crisp in a Guy Fawkes Day bonfire — but more emotionally-adept and socially-aware.

The superhero genre tends to prioritize competency over all else. Even when Tony Stark is having a nervous breakdown, he is still one of the most powerful, brilliant men in the world. This aspect of the superhero genre bled into Sherlockseason three, giving us a new, all-powerful version of the complicated, brilliant mess of a man we got in seasons one and two. Instead of Sherlock’s social awkwardness and human fallibility, he became an unstoppable assassin who solved the season’s chief problem — i.e. Charles Magnussen — not with his brain, but with a bullet. I have never been more disappointed with this show than in this moment.

The fact that Sherlock used his “force” to defeat Magnussen rather than brain power is a classic superhero move, but the specific manner — a gun, while being surveilled by the British government — was all spy drama, a genre that came into serious play with the introduction of Mary Morstan (more on that in a minute).

Like Steven Moffat’s The Doctor at unfortunate points in Doctor Who, Sherlock becomes a god-like character who is always the smartest, most competent person in the room, leeching much of the dramatic tension from the show. The problem is: when Sherlock is the most powerful, competent person in the narrative, it can also make his machinations and comments feel less like socially-frustrated rudeness and more like bullying.

(Note: For me, season three’s “The Sign of Three” was a brief return to form for the show, and one of the best episodes of Sherlock,full stop — proof that, even when Sherlockis struggling, it can still be pretty great.)

“The Abominable Bride”: the meta period piece.

Sherlockstarted introducing some realism-undermining meta elements in season three, but the degree to which it tried to troll its viewers peaked with “The Abominable Bride.” Though the special was marketed as a one-off Victorian-set drama that had no relation to the ongoing story and characters of the regular show, it was actually an elaborate deep dive into Sherlock’s mind palace.

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We spend most of the episode inside of Sherlock’s drug-addled brain as he tries to solve a century-old mystery in order to determine if Moriarty could really be back. It was ambitious, sure, but it also felt like an unnecessary exercise in meta commentary on the show itself. By creating a Victorian version of Sherlock, “The Abominable Bride” was constantly reminding us of the fictional nature of the show’s entire premire. 

Obviously, no one watches even the best episodes of Sherlockthinking it is reality TV, but escapism tends to become much less escapist when you are constantly told to look at the seams. Here, the seams being the many layers of Sherlockian reality — a bright, gaudy matryoshka doll that ends with the reality that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character with a rich history of adaptation, while poking holes in several layers of fictional “reality” on its way to that truth.

Sherlock season 4: the spy drama/psychological horror.

By the time Sherlockseason 4 rolled around, I have to admit: I had given up on hoping for the show that Sherlockonce was. This allowed me to enjoy the larger-than-life, genre-shifting show that Sherlockhas become, while still rolling my eyes at some of its more ridiculous elements.

Season four is still fresh in everyone’s minds, so I don’t think I need to talk too indepthly about the genres in play here, but I will mention a few examples.

With the conclusion of Mary’s storyline (and, you know, life), we got a continuation of the spy drama elements that were introduced in season three. Like “The Sign of Three” before it, “The Lying Detective” was perhaps the most traditional Sherlock-ianof the season’s episodes, though it seems worth noting that Sherlock’s character was fallible not because he is human and, like the rest of us, can’t avoid it, but because he decided to be in order to manipulate John’s character into forgiving him.

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“The Final Problem” was refreshing in the ways in which it let both Sherlock and Mycroft be out of control of the situation. (Of course, it was another of the very special snowflakes that make up the Holmes clan who outsmarted them.) The episode went all-in with the horror elements, both in the opening sequence that saw Sherlock trying to spook Mycroft into telling the truth about their sister, and, later, in the psychological horror elements of the tests Eurus creates for Sherlock.

Though “The Final Problem” mostly stuck to a genre — psychological horror — that actually fits nicely within the original Sherlockframework, it really pushed the limits of that fit. Most of the episode took place in an Azkaban-like prison where one woman was able to brainwash an entire facility’s worth of trained wardens and guards, despite being allowed only minimal contact. There was also a grenade riding a drone in there somewhere and a massive explosion Sherlock, John, and Mycroft somehow managed to survive through sheer force of counting.

It made for a dramatic raising of the stakes, but lost some of its reality points along the way. It was a classic example of the specific storytelling element Sherlockhas prioritized in the last few seasons: The Twist.

It’s OK to pull the rug out from under your viewers, but, as Sherlockhas progressed, Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have increasingly done it at the expense of the show’s reality. By prioritizing things like surprise and meta commentary over continuity and character, Sherlockhas become less realistic as it has progressed.

Circling back around to where we started…

Season four may very well be the show’s final hurrah, which would leave the BBC/PBS detective drama with a complicated legacy and an ending that reflects that.

The epilogue in “The Final Problem” felt a bit like it belonged to an alternate universe: the universe where Sherlocknever went off the rails onto another track to become something other than solely a detective (melo)drama. In that short, season-ending montage, we got the Sherlockwe’ve been craving for the past two seasons (albeit in a cruelly quick fashion): Sherlock and John solving cases at 221B Baker Street.

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No gravity-defying superhero antics. No psychopathic supervillain sisters. Just plain old-fashioned reason, with what a healthy dash of family melodrama mixed in for flavor. It’s kind of amazing that Sherlockspent two seasons (and five years) doing narrative dressage only to end up back where it started.

Embracing the depth of the real, modern world.

In the first two seasons, Sherlockgave us a character who found meaning in the mundane — in a particular shade of lipstick, in nicks on a cellphone, in the clutter of stuff that makes up the modern western world. The show didn’t need fantastical elements to make the world strange or scary or wonderful.

As Conan Doyle wrote for his most famous character in “A Case of Identity”:

‘My dear fellow,’ said Sherlock Holmes as we sat on either side of the fire in his lodgings at Baker Street, ‘life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent. We would not dare to conceive the things which are really mere commonplaces of existence.

If we could fly out of that window hand in hand, hover over this great city, gently remove the roofs, and peep in at the queer things which are going on, the strange coincidences, the plannings, the cross-purposes, the wonderful chains of events, working through generation, and leading to the most outre results, it would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable.’

We never needed Sherlockto be a superhero story or a spy drama. Rather, we needed quite the opposite: a story that doesn’t make us choose between romance and reason, between modernity and cynicism. A story that recognizes there are stakes and wonders enough within the boundaries of the real world.