Sunday, 15 January 2017

Sherlock, Ranked & Reviewed (Television)


Sherlock is continually (and rightfully) regarded as one of Britain's best television series of recent times, with fans from across the globe falling in love with the BBC's modernisation and adaption of Arthur Conan Doyle's series based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss co-created the series, with lead actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman catapulting to Hollywood stardom because of their roles as Holmes and Watson. With season four potentially wrapping up the entire series as we know it, I take a look at the thirteen episodes that have aired in the show's seven year history, ranked and reviewed each of them to see how they all stack up - now including episode three of the latest run, The Final Problem. Be sure to share your own lists in the comments section!

Will The Reichenbach Fall ascend to new heights? Should The Great Game win this round? Can The Lying Detective lie his way to the list's peak? Or will A Scandal in Belgravia create chaos on top? Without further ado, the game is on...




13. The Blind Banker (S1, E2) (C)

Sherlock soared in its debut outing back in 2011, but it came crashing down in the second episode that feels like an hour-long episode stretched into a 90 minute slot. The Blind Banker is a plodding example of the 'sophomore slump' that only occasionally sparks the creativity and charm of the pilot episode. Despite the slight smugness of the episode, its lazy representation of Orientalism is one of its biggest curses (although it's presents an intriguing case to analyse as part of your Media Studies A-Level, I can tell you!) and forces a disengagement to the entire episode that ensure that this is the weakest to date. On the whole, it's the story that fails to compel and you find yourself willing for the episode to speed towards its conclusion and/or the next episode entirely, even if it includes some terrific character development for Doctor John Watson (not that any is afforded to his love interest).



12. The Six Thatchers (S4, E1) (C+)

Season four's debut episode aired just a couple of weeks ago to rather mixed reviews, with many (myself included) worrying that the show would never reach the insane heights that the lengthy hiatus and previous bar of success had us anticipating. It is as if the entire ninety minutes of The Six Thatchers is positioned in setting up the rest of the season, or instead initialising a soft 'reset' to undergo; this can work with some shows, but not Sherlock, where only three feature length episodes come round every couple of years, ending almost as soon as it has started only for audiences to be thrown back into a long, uncertain hiatus on the wait for something new. There exists a looming sense of predictability and a naggingly dull tone to the episode, with a final twist that should be like a punch to the stomach instead feeling no more than a slight tap. It suffers more because what has come before has been so consistently incredible and it begins to suggest that Sherlock is truly running out of steam.



11. The Hounds of the Baskerville (S2, E2) (C+)

Taking on Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous/popular story was always going to be a daunting and difficult task: unfortunately, it doesn't make the translation into a 21st century setting very well, with a lot of the intensity lost along the way, in what should be a pivotal moment in the entire show's run.  Not only is The Hounds of the Baskerville the weakest link in what many regard as the show's strongest season to date but if it wasn't for the popularity of the source material, this would easily be one of the most forgettable episodes too. Its decision to separate Sherlock and Watson for a solid chunk of its runtime, which is so often the strongest element of the show, functions to the episode's detriment as it loses part of what makes Sherlock so special - Sherlock and Watson's relationship. We do see some good character progression for Watson but it's not enough when the episode is of a poorer standard than one would like of the most famous story in the Sherlock Holmes canon.



10. The Empty Hearse (S3, E1) (B-)

Season three started on the back foot by having to overcome the obstacles left by season two's finale meaning the entire episode feels like it's playing catch up. After years of rampant speculation, theories and detailed graphs, the time came to reveal how Sherlock faked his own death and it didn't quite pay off; Steven Moffat played with a number of theories and possibilities without actually revealing the 'how' and while they were each entertaining, the show caught itself chasing its own tail towards something 'bigger' and 'badder'. It starts off rather well though, with a decent two acts that manages to balance a new, important case and re-establishing our two lead protagonists relationship, all while introducing Mary Watson, played by the wonderful Amanda Abbington. The conclusion to the new case is a little anti-climatic in the end and felt like a cop out, opposed to a satisfying conclusion - but there is enough here to enjoy.



9. The Final Problem (S4, E3) (B-)

Maybe my frustration with the episode pushes it further down the list, but The Final Problem fluffs the goodwill from the previous episode's upswing in quality and is a great disappointment when stacked up against the usually terrific season finales Sherlock has become renown for. Similar in tone and structure (and even borrowing the same source material), The Final Problem never works as well as The Great Game does because it doesn't quite understand what it wants to be; a season finale or a series finale, it's as uneven as the Sherlock of recent has become and lacks the usual sophistication of Moffat and Gatiss' writing resulting a mess of twists and turns for the sake of having twists and turns, lacking the carefully considered and plotted intricacy of the first two seasons. The whole thing is summed up rather ironically by the jump from last week's jaw dropping finale to this week's cold opening - they literally brush off the cliffhanger with the most half-hearted explanation in order to hurry on to the 'big' thing of the week, as if we have been cheated out of a revelation to have another thrown at us. If that sounds harsh, it's only because I expect so much more of Sherlock's concluding episodes in particular, and I will admit that the episode does feature some terrific moments (the Molly Hooper phone-call, Jim Moriarty's entrance and the airplane case) which is sadly brought together in a messy fashion.

P.S. There is a huge difference between misdirection and sending some down the wrong path entirely for the sake of the 'rug from under feet' moment later on and Sherlock is always so unpredictable as to which it plumps for that it is beginning to become tiresome.



8. The Sign of Three (S3, E2) (B-)

I admire what the middle episode of the third season was trying to do but I'm not quite convinced they executed it as well as they should have. Set at John and Mary's wedding, The Sign of Three features some of the best sequences in the show to date, including the Mayfly Man case in Sherlock's Mind Palace and a wonderful 'best of' case montage. The rest of the episode, however, has some major tone and structuring issues and it isn't stitched together with the same care and attention as these stand out scenes. Sherlock's wedding speech is tonally awkward, not just in Cumberbatch's wonderful delivery but its presence in the series at all, as though it doesn't quite belong in the series or, as Caroline Frost of The Huffington Post commented "(it is) somewhere between a Christmas one-off, a Comic Relief-inspired parody and one of these special dream-sequence sitcom episodes".  It's not bad at all; it just isn't Sherlock.



7. The Abominable Bride (Special) (B)

In between the eternity that was the wait between season three and four came The Abominable Bride, a one-off Christmas special flashing back in time to the Victorian days the Conan Doyle series was initially set. It offered a unique opportunity and experience to explore how his series was initially written, removing the technology element that defines the BBC's adaptation of the show and conform to various Victorian conventions, such as women taking a backseat in society at all times. Cutting between the past and the present, with the case acting as a parallel to 'Miss Me?' Moriarty as seen 'revived' at the end of season three is a joy to watch, even if the novelty wears off in parts and the third act is by far the strongest.



6. The Lying Detective (S4, E2) (B)

Call it a coincidence but I always find with Sherlock that the middle episode is the weakest (Banker, Baskerville and Sign being the three examples). You'll understand my concern then, after the underwhelming premiere episode, that season four would follow pattern and dip further in quality for the second instalment. Thankfully, it didn't, and The Lying Detective demonstrates some of the charm of the show's previous seasons, just as we began to worry it would never be able to recapture the spark. Some of the most wonderful character work is delivered in the episode, thanks to reliable performances from Cumberbatch and Freeman, and a skin-crawling introduction to Toby Jones' villain, as well as a blistering cliffhanger reveal that imitates that of a season's most intense finale. It finally feels, after a long wait, that Sherlock is showing signs of an ascent back to greatness.



5. His Last Vow (S3, E3) (B)

It feels as though His Last Vow is a two-narrative episode; the Mary reveal being the better half, with the Magnussen half devoid of some of the tension it needed to be as compelling as it should be. Following in Moriarty's footsteps was always going to be a task but his shadow still looms largely over the third season finale, meaning that the villain for this piece gets completely lost, resulting in a less than satisfying showdown, but admittedly delivering an interesting end-point for the finale when all is said and done. A lot does work in this episode and thanks to a great script and a well-structured episode that alleviates some of the concerns with the Magnussen-end of the plot, by intertwining the two narratives pretty well, means it succeeds well enough as a finale. The central twist, which pushes the characters into uncharted waters and leaves a very big question mark for the series to pull and push and prod away at, is really rather effective and deviates greatly from the original story, where Sherlock so often hits its stride. It does succeed for the majority of the time, even though its not quite as sophisticated and rewarding as the show's other season finales.



4. A Scandal In Belgravia (S2, E1) (A-)

A Scandal in Belgravia, season two's opening episode, hits the grounding running by picking up from the end of The Great Game in an anti-climatic by deliciously twisted resolution at the episode's dawn. Belgravia feels fresh and exciting with an element of sophistication and maturity as the series develops into it second leg, while remaining as fun and enjoyable as the first season. Lara Puvler's introduction as Irene Adler is absolute terrific and in doing so, she becomes one of the show's most compelling characters to date; commanding and enigmatic, she becomes a real match for Sherlock Holmes, bringing a really interesting dynamic to explore over the rest of the show - even when she isn't in the room. I might have hoped for an ending that was as bold and brave as the rest of the episode but I can forgive this little grumble in an otherwise top-quality episode.



3. A Study In Pink (S1, E1) (A)

Sherlock's debut episode had so much weight resting on its shoulders - this first of its kind, a modernisation of Arthur Conan Doyle's Victorian-set series that remains so pivotal in regards to English literature, needed to score big or result in the BBC looking like fools. Thankfully, the fantastic team they have assembled - from the creators to the cast to the crew - are all seemingly working towards the same goal and ensure the pilot episode, A Study In Pink, sets the standard so high. It's a gripping and completely absorbing crime drama with its own identity - that of Sherlock Holmes and John Watson and their adventures in and around 221B Baker Street in the 21st century. It could very easily have failed but thanks to the solid team behind and in front of the camera so determined to make it a complete success, A Study In Pink remains one of the show's absolute stand out episodes.



2. The Great Game (S1, E3) (A+)

Season one's conclusion is most effective because we have no face for the danger - that is, until The Great Game's heart-stopping finale, ensuring it is not only dense, but incredibly tense too. It is continually shrouded in mystery and excitement and nails the one element that makes Sherlock such a compelling show (the investigations, of which there are a number, linked as part of the villain's masterplan). Andrew Scott's Moriarty may just be one of the most powerful villains on television screens, with his portrayal genuinely terrifying and commanding; despite featuring for mere minutes towards the climax of the piece, he is the absolute centre of the entire thing. It is completely staggering that an episode, so early into the series' run, can so masterfully achieve the sophistication and general greatness The Great Game manages to attain for the full ninety minutes.



1. The Reichenbach Fall (S2, E3) (A*)

The Reichenbach Fall is near faultless television. No, scratch that, The Reichenbach Fall is faultless television. Season two's mammoth finale extrapolates every fantastic element of the five episodes of Sherlock before it, combines them and intensifies it to deliver a triumphant episode that feels continually tense, exciting, interesting, emotional, dark and just a little bit funnier than it should be. Cumberbatch, Freeman and particularly Andrew Scott deliver some of their best, most powerful work in the entire series, with sensational character developments and arcs finally coming to a head in the episode - with big thanks to its smart dialogue, stylistic direction and nail-biting climax and cliffhanger that throws everything up into the air. It is a consequential, rewarding and satisfying conclusion to possibly one of the greatest seasons of British television in quite some time, in this show-stopping 90 minute feature-length. In the words of Scott's Moriarty, "in a world of locked rooms the man with the key is king", and The Reichenbach Falls wears the most elaborate and deserving of crowns.


Which episode takes your top spot? Do let me know below!

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