The truth is I fell out of love with Sherlock at the end of season 3 but couldn’t really admit it to myself. When that Moriarty animation turned up asking, “Did you miss me?” my answer was an emphatic no. Whenever a show doubles back to the vanquished supervillain to pique our interest, don’t we all know deep in our hearts that it’s over, that things aren’t really moving forward? I tried to keep my hopes up even after The Abominable Bride (which I would have enjoyed more had they just done the Victorian one-off). Explaining away huge chunks of a story that you spent millions of pounds producing with “It was all a dream!” is another huge red flag that the writers are running out of interesting ideas.
I got out of Lost early (season 3, I think) and ditched Heroes after the first episode of the second season because I could tell the series had been front-loaded, and there wasn’t a clear path to a satisfying resolution in either show. I’ve seen enough promising TV flounder to recognise the symptoms of a show that has fallen off and probably isn’t going to make its way back to its glory days:
- The plot becomes unnecessarily convoluted. The soccer Mom/assassin espionage plotline is preposterous and hasn’t been skilfully executed thus far. “That was surgery” is one of the most ridiculous sentences I’ve ever heard uttered on a TV show I was meant to be taking seriously. Shooting someone in the chest at close range isn’t surgery. It’s the opposite of surgery. It’s shooting someone in the chest - WHERE THEIR HEART AND LUNGS ARE LOCATED! The line doesn’t even make sense as a bluff. (More on why I hate this storyline is here (I get a bit sweary…))
- The central relationship becomes muddled. The argument over whether or not Johnlock will become canon (it won’t - Sherlolly has the best chance) has been flogged like a dead horse, so I won’t rehash it here except to say Moftiss teed all that up with the “date scene” in the first episode and the steady barrage of John’s “I’m not gay!” protestations. There are so many ways to write a platonic male friendship without invoking homosexual attraction, and Moftiss has somehow managed to avoid every single one of them. (Heteronormativity is a helluva drug, man…) Re-starting your stopped heart for someone and coming back from the dead to save them is the purest declaration of true love a person could possibly make. That whole set-up is basically a re-mix of The Pit of Despair from The Princess Bride. Actually, the more I think about it, the more Princess Bride-y the whole show seems. Sherlock is Westley, John is Buttercup and Mary is Humperdink.
- Heavy eyelids. Feeling bored during appointment TV is the surest sign things have taken a turn for the worse. The middle episode of every season of Sherlock always drags, but The Sign of Three just seemed to go on forever. I actually nodded off a couple of times. The 90-minute episodes are a problem. They’re having to put in a lot of filler material, and it’s compromising the quality of the show. The longer the series goes on, the more I wish they would just ditch the 90-minute format, make one-hour episodes and force Moftiss to tighten things up.
- The writers don’t stay in their lane. Everything coming out of the season 4 set indicates that the next instalment will be “dark” and more action-packed. These developments do not encourage me, because neither of those things are in Moftiss’s wheelhouse. Both require a mastery of timing to work, and their struggle with the 90-minute format is a huge stumbling block on this front. As much as I loved the first two seasons, the show has always been erratically paced. Moftiss are good at sudden dramatic highs (“I’M SHERLOCKED”; Mary shooting Sherlock, etc.), but maintaining tension throughout isn’t one of their strengths, nor is building a crescendo. The long episodes exacerbate their weaknesses and downplay their strengths. I’m beginning to fear that much of season 4 will be a snooze fest punctuated with decreasingly effective plot twists that are little more than jump scares.
- The writers become self-indulgent. Moftiss describing season 4 as “massive wish fulfilment” is what really got me thinking the show might actually jump the shark as opposed to just continuing down the path to becoming middling. The Empty Hearse scenes winking at Sheriarty and Tumblrverse conspiracies served no real purpose in the narrative. A meta, self-referential piss-take is the triple Axel of TV writing, and almost no one can land it cleanly except when it’s just a throwaway line. Moftiss created a whole new cast of characters incorporated into a mini-subplot to show Sherlock almost kiss Moriarty and provide implausible explanations for him surviving the fall. It’s a bad sign that such extended, indulgent self-references doing nothing to advance the plot or develop the characters were there just for their own sake. It means they’re heavily invested in seeking audience reactions and think stopping the actual story to get them is a winning strategy. The integrity of the narrative isn’t being protected.
ETA: The use of the dog in so many promos worries me too. Animals are an easy way to elicit humour and get cheap laughs. If they’re relying on “cutting to the dog”… This might go even more badly than I thought…
ETA (28/12/16): Steven Moffat saying that the finale of season 4 is the episode he's proudest of writing has me concerned that it might be a raspberry. It indicates that it is unlikely anyone reined him in, and he was allowed to revel in his bad habits and wander farther afield from his strengths. Him getting everything he wants is a bad sign. The trajectory of Sherlock has made it pretty clear that the show Moftiss has always wanted to produce is a well-budgeted actioner, and it is my deep fear that they have been allowed to. The constrictions of budget in the earlier seasons forced them to find more interesting ways to advance the plot. Now that they have the money for explosions and car chases and gun fights, that's what we're going to get. Ironically, everyone except the "casuals" has galactically misapprehended their intentions - an action/espionage plotline has always been the endgame, and they've obviously doubled down on the silly Mary Watson/AGRA storyline. There's room for them to write their way out of the nonsensical plot, but doing so would require them to recognise there's a problem, and there's nothing to indicate that they do.
I really, really hope I'm wrong about all this. I genuinely want season 4 to be as good as season 1, but as more promo material gets released, it's looking less and less likely...
ETA (30/12/16): Yeah... So Mark Gatiss has joined Steven Moffat in talking about how exceedingly clever Sherlock is and how this will be the cleverest season yet... Given the problems with S3 and the Christmas special, and everything indicating that they've gone all in on all that, the overweening confidence has me ready to take the brace position. I'm worried they're heading further into the weeds with the twists and tricks and may not have bothered to underpin them with a story that makes sense (and the Mary Watson/AGRA story does not make sense as they've presented it). All this time I've been thinking they might be heading for a giant iceberg, but everything in the promos has me seriously considering that the moment Mary Watson said "It's a skip code" was when they rammed the ship into it, and they have been taking on water ever since.
Again, REALLY hope I'm wrong, and nothing would make me happier than for them pull out a GOT-esque season 5 comeback.