With “Sherlock” already a huge hit in the U.K., one needn’t be a master sleuth to foresee good things for its third season: Both Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are coming off major film roles, and PBS – in a very commercial-network-type move – is using mega-hit “Downton Abbey” as a springboard to launch the three-90-minute-movie season (at 9:58 p.m., no less). But mostly, the show deserves to do well because it’s so bloody good – smart, whimsical and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, finding fresh, distinctive avenues into this venerable character, even with multiple incarnations currently in circulation.
There’s even a breezy quality to these episodes that creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat have earned through their good works in the earlier chapters, which brought Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes into the 21st century – complete with Twitter and texting – along with familiar trappings from the mythology, including a very different Moriarty.
Holmes’ brush with that villain – and his apparent death at season two’s close – dominate the third-season premiere, especially since Dr. Watson (Freeman) has spent the past two years grieving over it. Fortunately, he’s also acquired a plucky fiancee (“Mr. Selfridge’s” Amanda Abbington), who proves surprisingly nimble at handling Holmes’ self-absorbed intrusion into their relationship.
Without giving too much away, the opener contains hilarious theories about the means of Holmes’ faked death, as well as an arcane plot explaining why he had to disappear, involving brother Mycroft (played by Gatiss). The second installment, meanwhile, answers the burning question of what would happen if Holmes had to sniff around a crime scene while blind stinking drunk.
In this age of “CSI,” it’s no small feat to contemporize Holmes and still make his acute intellect a modern marvel, as well as juggle the we’re-not-gay, not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that relationship with Watson. “Sherlock” deftly straddles a line somewhere between Billy Wilder’s “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” with Robert Stephens (a film Gatiss not surprisingly has cited as an influence), and the asexual nature of the brilliant Sheldon in “The Big Bang Theory.”
It all works thanks heavily to the chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman, which alternates between wide-eyed wonder and exasperation to the point of the good doctor calling his pal a “dickhead” and a “cock.”
PBS, meanwhile, finds itself in a position that’s rare for public television – with a hit any network would envy, and the opportunity to build on that success, pretty impressively, without selling out the “Masterpiece” brand.
Granted, “Sherlock” is only a limited affair, but for three successive Sundays with it and “Downton” on the case, there’s nothing sleepy or stuffy about public television.