Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Sherlock" Episode Ranking

To quote my friend Kyle’s complaint about the latest season of Sherlock….”remember when he used to, you know, solve mysteries??”  Kyle’s original complaint may have also included an expletive.

This post could very easily be a top-13 list of reasons why Sherlock is a strange show to properly review, or why it’s a show I enjoy and often champion to friends looking for a Netflix recommendation despite the fact that (as you’ll see) I have major issues with most of the episodes.  Wonderful acting, a very stylish presentation and clever (if not necessarily good) writing often papers over the fact that Sherlock is often all sizzle and no steak. 

Granted, it isn’t easy coming up with fresh ways to present the all-too-familiar adventures and character beats of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.  It’s also worth noting that Doyle’s original stories had their share of odd characterization and “can’t they just go back to solving mysteries?” diversions like Holmes getting involved in international espionage, not to mention the fact that many of Doyle’s mysteries are hard to translate to the 21st century due to modern technology.  Still, I definitely feel that this series too often cheaps out when all the ingredients are here for a truly great show.

Onto the episode ranking!

13. The Empty Hearse….The central crime of this episode (a threat to bomb Parliament a la Guy Fawkes) is so massive in scale yet so totally underwritten and treated as an annoyance by Holmes that it almost felt offensive.  Also, I guess we’re supposed to infer that Holmes’ “nobody will ever believe you” explanation to his superfan about how he faked his death was the actual answer, though the fact that the show was so hand-wavey about Sherlock’s trick was pretty annoying.

12. The Abominable Bride….An “imaginary episode” in the 1890’s should’ve been a slam-dunk.  Instead, it absolutely fell apart in the final third of the episode and turned into an incoherent Moriarty fan fiction.

11. The Final Problem….If this show had a ‘first problem,’ it was that Moriarty was both directly introduced into the series too soon and made into such an enormous threat that he had to be dispatched almost as quickly.  The writers have been trying to fill Moriarty’s shoes as the show’s Big Bad ever since, first with Charles Magnussen and then with Eurus Holmes.  There is no finer example of the show’s laziness than the fact that they introduce the game-changing idea of Sherlock and Mycroft having a sister, then making her into even more of a ludicrous supervillain than Moriarty ever was.  Also, if the timeline is to be believed, Eurus was also seemingly responsible for “creating” Moriarty in the first place, another annoying narrative cheat that undercuts the rest of the series.

10. The Blind Banker….On the one hand, it’s the sort of stand-alone mystery I wish the show would do more of.  On the other hand, it’s not a particularly good mystery and it’s kinda racist.


9. His Last Vow….Back to the “Big Bad” complaint, it’s also a little weird that Holmes never really seems to defeat his arch-enemies.  I guess you could argue that Moriarty was ultimately outwitted since he ended up with a bullet in his brain and Holmes disproved the fraud allegations, though it was presented as more of a stalemate.  Everything Eurus did was ultimately reduced to a cry for help, as it was clear Sherlock was no match for her on any level.  And here you have Magnussen, who just completely outwits Sherlock and forces Sherlock to cut the Gordian Knot by just shooting him in the head.  Having Sherlock Holmes resort to murder when faced with an unsolvable problem is such a character cheat that I’m almost tempted to rank this episode even lower.

8. The Six Thatchers….Can we talk about how weird it was that Mary Marston was turned into a retired international assassin?  Like, what?  The writers needed something major for Magnussen to blackmail her over but THAT was their decision?  N.B. the original “Adventure Of The Six Napoleons” story this episode is inspired by was the first Doyle mystery I ever figured out before the ending.  Nine-year-old Mark was so pleased to have finally cracked a case before Holmes could explain it that I assumed I was developing a Holmes-ian logical mind that would allow me to also become a world-renowned detective.  And that totally happened!

7. The Reichenbach Fall….The episode where Moriarty went from cunning mastermind to cartoonish Joker-esque supervillain.  It begs credulity that Moriarty, whose entire deal was that he was the “criminal consultant” working within the shadows and never involving himself directly in the crimes, would so publicly connect himself to any hint of wrongdoing.  Also, to complain again about Magnussen’s murder, it should be noted that Moriarty seems to easily have the resources and opportunity to kill Holmes a thousand times over, but prefers to try and beat him with wits.  Very weird that Moriarty seems to have this level of moral high ground over Holmes.  

6. A Scandal In Belgravia….This episode would be higher on the list had it not severely shortchanged the character of Irene Adler.  In the stories, she gains exalted status for Holmes since he greatly respects her mind (if I recall correctly, she is the only character actually shown to fool Holmes in one of Doyle’s stories) and her general character.  In the show, however, Holmes outwits Irene and she is essentially just a tool of Moriarty.  There is little evidence presented within the episode to argue why Holmes would still consider her to be “The Woman” that so piques his curiosity. 


5. The Lying Detective….A fine episode somewhat undermined by the final big-picture-for-the-season twist of Eurus pretending to be Faith Smith.  I guess, Eurus knew about Culverton Smith’s crimes and just wanted to test her brother?  Well, ok, maybe it’s more than “somewhat” undermined, but the hell with it, I liked this one.

4. The Hounds Of Baskerville….This episode is generally not considered to be one of the series’ better offerings, so I’m one of the few who would have it this high in a ranking.  In my view, however, this is the best case of the series successfully taking a classic Doyle story and giving it a proper, semi-realistic (well, as realistic as possible given the subject matter) update into modern times. 

3. A Study In Pink….The pilot that was so clever and so well-done that it allowed us all to keep making excuses about the series for the next seven years!  Yay!  Even this one, however, had some hints of the underlying dissatisfaction yet to come; you would’ve thought that Holmes would’ve come to the “it was a cabbie” conclusion much sooner, and I’m still not exactly sure how the cab driver’s trick worked.  Was he poisoning both pills?  Is it something super-obvious that I’m dim enough to have overlooked?  (Spoiler alert: I didn’t actually become a world-renowned detective.)


2. The Sign Of Three….Speaking of me being dim, halfway through this episode, I was foolish enough to believe that it was actually going to be all about John and Mary’s wedding, and not an actual mystery.  Oops!  Admittedly, the criminal’s plot is ludicrously complicated and it is the height of coincidence that Holmes and Watson’s recent unsolved crimes were both related to the wedding, but again, the hell with it.  I’m more than happy to accept some level of narrative foolishness within this series as long as it’s done in a clever and non-character destroying way.   

1. The Great Game….Essentially the perfect modern Sherlock episode.  Sherlock “f***ing solves mysteries” (thanks Kyle!), the cases are all interesting, Moriarty is presented as a great looming menace, Lestrade’s exasperation level is off the charts…it’s all good.

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