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‘Sherlock’ Season 3 Hits All the Wrong Notes

One fan’s spoiler-free study in dissatisfaction

As the end credits rolled, I found myself asking aloud “Is this what I waited for two years to watch?”

For a single surreal moment I had the hope that I was dreaming, and would awaken to find the “real” Season 3 was yet to conclude. Sadly, it turns out I was wide awake all along.

A long-time Holmes devotee and staunch promoter of BBC’s “Sherlock,” I was one of a legion of fans who waited breathlessly through a two-year hiatus nearly shivering with anticipation. After the powerhouse that was Season 1, and given the truly excellent moments that shone through in Season 2 (despite a few tonal missteps along the way), I had only the highest expectations for Season 3.

Perhaps that was the problem.

It’s easy to lose track of the fact that those lightning-in-a-bottle moments of entertainment and mass appeal often happen as much by happenstance as by design (the right actors at the right time, with moody lighting, plot enhancing soundtrack and a clever director’s eye exist as the oft sought but seldom achieved Gold Standard) and therefore can prove devilishly difficult to duplicate.

Which is not to say that the creative team didn’t try; quite the opposite. I would venture to say they tried too hard, and in so doing served up an incoherent, emotionally dissonant, confusing morass that seemed like nothing so much as a cheap imitation of their own earlier work.

To be fair, the thespian performances remained solid. Benedict Cumberbatch again slips seamlessly into the role of Sherlock, Martin Freeman delivers some wonderfully nuanced performances that play John Watson’s emotions across his features like paint on a wall, while Mark Gatiss, Rupert Graves, Una Stubbs, Amanda Abbington, Lousie Brealey and Jonathan Aris shore up their avatars with dimensionality.

But the series feels as if it has lost its soul, and one of the newest additions to the “Sherlock Family” emerges as so witty, wonderful and cleverer-than-the-average-bear that it doesn’t take very long at all to realize you are staring into the MSATM (Mary Sue Abyss) so favored by Moffat and lamented by many fans of “Doctor Who” (but that is a column for another day).

As these things tend to do, the post-season reactions have already started to polarize the online fandom. While some enjoyed these episodes very much, equally many seem to share my mindset that these offerings do not live up to the standards of the previous installments.

One criticism lobbed at the naysayers is that they (unrealistically) expected more of a “fanfic” flair to these eps. To a certain extent this may be argued to be true, but only I think inasmuch as we expect more character development and less crime procedural.

I enjoy the “case file” elements of Sherlock in their nod-and-wink homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original canon, and the crimes and criminal adversaries as the tools with which to imperil our intrepid heroes. But no more than that. The who and the what of the crimes take a distant backseat to Holmes and Watson, both as individual incarnations and as a cohesive unit.

That’s what made this series such a hit, and that’s what made it stand out among Holmesian interpretations.

If you want a by-the-numbers case file focus, then (for all its many flaws) “Elementary” is the better bet. Looking for beautiful production values and canon-compliance? Try the Jeremy Brett vehicle by Granada. Want action hero Holmes and the physicality of ready-to-rumble Watson? I recommend the Robert Downey Jr./Jude Law films.

But if what you’re looking for is a Holmesian spin on the inner life of our protagonists, treading the line between sincerity and maudlin sentimentality like only the best dramas can, then Sherlock is the horse to back. Or at least it was.

That is in my opinion the saddest fact of all: not that Season 3 was less than stellar, but that it fell so short of the greatness we know it could have achieved.

“Sherlock” will air in the United States on PBS beginning Jan. 19.

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