Imagine a world where the first ever episode of Sherlock was like The Final Problem. A mind-controlling supervillian kidnaps Sherlock Holmes and puts him through a series of dastardly puzzles on her island lair, in an episode where action hero Sherlock and trusty sidekick John Watson jump out of a building as a fireball explodes behind them. Would the show have been as critically revered if this had been the first episode?
That description is exactly what you would expect from a clueless, modern update of Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective stories, and it was the defiance of this expectation that made Sherlock so refreshing, so incredible in its early episodes. Unfortunately, with each subsequent episode, the show got closer and closer to a parody Sherlock Holmes, littered with incredulous twists, illogical plot developments and cringey, wacky hijinks.
The Final Problemcould well be the last episode of Sherlock, as a result of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s Hollywood careers. With the massive downturn in quality over the last two seasons, that may well be for the best.
The Lying Detective started and ended with a bang, literally, as two gunshots bookended an episode which contained many of the flaws that have crept into Sherlock but also some of what made it so good in its first two seasons.
Episode two of this fourth series revolved around businessman, philanthropist and serial killer Culverton Smith. Sherlock sought to prove Culverton’s crimes while repairing his relationship with John Watson and coming to terms with his own role in Mary Watson’s death. Also looming in the shadows was the third Holmes sibling, who at episode’s end was revealed to be a sister, Euros/Eurus.
The highlight of the episode was Culverton. Actor Toby Jones brought a disturbing, dirty creepiness to the role – appropriate because the character is unambiguously modelled on Jimmy Savile, the fundraising, much-loved celebrity who turned out to be a monster.
The UK hasn’t really came to terms with Savile. He is probably the most prolific child rapist in British history; a guy who walked through the BBC, hospitals, schools, palaces and political offices dressed like a paedophile and went unchallenged and uncaught.
Once a smart, innovative mystery show, Sherlock has become 30% melodrama, 30% stupid Spooks-like antics, 30% ridiculous, logic-defying twists, and 10% intelligent case-solving. I’m not sure this show is for people who like smart TV anymore ‑ I think it mainly exists for people who like posting hyperbolic reaction gifs on Twitter.
The worst thing to happen to Sherlock, beyond the writers’ insatiable need to force a twist into every plot point and line of dialogue, is Mary Watson, so this episode at least had one thing going for it. Sherlock Holmes is supposed to be an intelligent detective, solving fiendishly clever mysteries with his faithful sidekick, so having a super-secret spy as a third wheel screws the tone up a little. The death of Mary at the episode’s end brings to a close her chapter full of implausible secret agent nonsense.
Sherlock: The Six Thatchers introduced the curious case of Margaret Thatcher statues being broken across the country, something Sherlock thought was connected to Moriarty for some reason, explained away with some mumbo-jumbo about interconnectedness. It turned out they were being broken by a spy, looking for some hidden spy docs inside. Said spy was a former colleague of Mary, who wanted her dead in revenge for an operation gone wrong thanks to a mystery betrayer. Who was that evil traitor? A secretary shown at the start of the episode in a meeting between Sherlock and the UK’s head government and intelligence honchos.
Welcome, then, 2016, and with it, another bi-yearly, sharp, short dose of Sherlock. 2014’s offering was pretty awful, a huge drop on the quality of the first two seasons, the reason for which I went into great depth about here, here and here.
This year we got a one-off special, The Abominable Bride, which was billed as a period piece set in the original 19th century world of Sherlock Holmes. It was instead our 21st century Sherlock dreaming up a 160-year-old version of himself in order to try and work out how Moriarty could be back from the dead, as he appeared to be at the end of series three.
Fargo is a rare-thing in television; a spin-off that is original. Not only original in fact, but arguably an improvement on the thing it was spun-off from.
The series, adapted from the 1996 Coen brothers film of the same name, follows the currently in vogue anthology format (see also: True Detective) where each series is different from the last, featuring different characters and locations.
Sort of anyway, because season one took place in 2006, and season two in 1979, with younger versions of some of the season one characters featured in the second. Lou Solverson in season two becomes Molly’s dad and diner owner in the first season, for instance, while ‘the Indian’ Hanzee Dent gets some plastic surgery and becomes season one’s mob boss Moses Tripoli.
Black Mirror is not, according to its creator Charlie Brooker, anti-technology. It’s concerned, rather, with technology’s potential to worsen human weaknesses. “I think that’s what Black Mirror is saying,” Brooker said in an interview to promote series two of the show. “What if the pace of change [of technology] is out of control, and we haven’t evolved to deal with it yet in the same way that we as basic apes haven’t really evolved to take responsibility for nuclear weapons?”
In White Christmas, a feature long episode that follows the previous two series, that theme is certainly visible. Utilising a format that seems particularly Christmassy, the film began with Matt Trent (Jon Hamm) and Joe Potter (Rafe Spall) – workers, seemingly, in an isolated location – sitting down to tell each other stories in a cold cabin.
Like most of Black Mirror, Matt’s story dealt with a society more connected than ever thanks to technology, and yet one in which isolation and loneliness remains, and if anything is made worse by that technology. In this world, everyone has gadgets implanted into their eyes, presumably at birth, that opens up a world of possibilities and problems.
Episode two took us back to the present day with a sort of ‘where are they now?’ catch-up with all the characters. It was a table-setting episode more than anything, and a little slow as a result, but there were a few outstanding moments and, if nothing else, the aesthetic on Utopia is so unique and beautiful to look at that even a quiet episode is seared in yellow onto your eyeballs afterwards.
In the episode’s first third, most of the characters had retreated to the humdrum lives of people not caught-up in a massive conspiracy. Ian was back at his IT job, a disconcertingly older looking Grant was confined to a flat – unable to leave because he’s supposed to be dead – and Becky, suffering from Deels Syndrome, has been forced to join up with Donaldson, the self-interested scientist with a stock of the drug that helps manage the disease (Donaldson is played by a new actor, which is a shame, because Simon McBurney was great last series).