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TV Review | ‘Sherlock’ returns after two-year hiatus

Published: Monday, January 27, 2014

Updated: Monday, January 27, 2014 07:01

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s readers waited 12 years for the Scottish writer to revive the beloved detective in 1905 after killing him off in “The Final Problem” (1893). Likewise, the BBC’s “Sherlock” left its audiences anxiously anticipating — for two years — the third season’s North American premiere, which hit PBS on Sunday, Jan. 19. Titled “The Empty Hearse,” the 90-minute episode brings back the wildly popular consulting detective and promises further developments for the rest of the season.

“The Empty Hearse” is set two years after the season two finale “The Reichenbach Fall” (2012), where Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) supposedly leapt to his death from St. Bart’s Hospital. Roughly based on “The Adventure of the Empty House” (1903), this episode sees Sherlock’s dramatic return to the world that has its center at 221B Baker Street. Sherlock eventually confronts his astonished friend Dr. John Watson (Martin Freeman) when the doctor is about to propose to his girlfriend, Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington). At the urge of his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), Holmes and Watson venture again deep into London’s underground terrorist network in an attempt to stop an imminent attack.

As co-creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat add brilliant modern details to the scenes, the episode continues to refer ingeniously to Doyle’s original works. While Sherlock does not return as an old book collector as he did in the novel, the show has a minor character play this role, thus paying a hilarious tribute to the author and to “The Adventure of the Empty House.” These subtle connections are sprinkled throughout the episode and offer pleasant surprises for both fans who have read the original stories and those who haven’t.

The third season also sees new faces in its cast. Abbington’s debut is sincere and fresh — her unique point of view on Sherlock and John’s relationship adds an interesting dynamic to their friendship. Timothy Carlton and Wanda Ventham — the real-life parents of Cumberbatch and professional actors themselves — make a short appearance as Sherlock’s father and mother. Their normalcy and ordinariness fuels the tension between Sherlock and Mycroft, while also bringing an incredibly human touch to both characters.

Though the second season premiere “A Scandal in Belgravia” (2012) had a tightly woven plot inspired by multiple Doyle stories, “The Empty Hearse” is obviously preoccupied with entertaining plausible explanations for Sherlock’s reappearance (and as such, the episode’s mystery-of-the-week plotline feels hastened). After hearing Sherlock reveal the truth behind his escape, Anderson (Jonathan Aris) — who has lost his job with the Metropolitan Police — comments that the plan is clever, but that he feels “a bit disappointed.” Sherlock joins him in gently mocking the reaction “The Reichenbach Fall” inspired, saying, “everyone’s a critic” with his usual air of contempt. A number of conversations like these dwell too much on old motifs and fail to add complexity to the case to be solved.

Fortunately, the series can still rely on smart acting to redeem flaws in the writing. Although some of the punch lines appear to be out of place and self-conscious, the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman usually makes up for lackluster jokes. With a few other familiar characters such as Molly Hopper (Louise Brealey) and Lestrade (Rupert Graves) making appearances, the cast saves the show from falling into a train of repeated quips.

Hopefully, with Sherlock’s two-year disappearance now explained, the series can continue to focus on the intriguing cases he encounters. While it’s not the strongest episode of the series, “The Empty Hearse” is still a delight to watch and promises much to look forward to in upcoming episodes “The Sign of Three” and “His Last Vow.”

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