|'Not only are the 'too clever' features of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's writing back but, like the titular character, they're back with a vengeance, hunting down the audience with maniacal glee designed to smugly kill off your satisfaction.'|
After a third season of the BBC's Sherlock offering which managed to reign in (nay, even laugh at) some of the show's wilder, more metatextual ideas, it was a surprise bordering on criminality to find them all reappear in the show's Christmas special, The Abominable Bride. Not only were the 'too clever' features of Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat's writing back but, like the titular character, they were back with a vengeance, hunting down the audience with maniacal glee designed to smugly kill off your satisfaction.
The half way point reveal of The Abominable Bride is Sherlock at its absolutely worst, the chutzpah of the show's lead character ill-advisedly transferred to the show itself. Whilst the character can get away with being, at times, unlikeable, gleefully arrogant and smarmy, the show as a whole, cannot. The writing in The Abominable Bride shouts about its own cleverness, revels in its 'seen before' twist and then continues to postulate on both for far too long. The twist is reversed, then re-engineered again in order to leave the character just where the writers need him but nowhere near where he needs to be to make this a satisfying stand-alone narrative.
Indeed, most criminally, the twist throws away the mystery of the bride, a mystery we have, until that point, believed to be important. The opening forty-five minutes or so is the show at its best, as Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) are introduced again briefly to justify the late 1800s setting (an intertitle after a recap of seasons one to three tells us that this is how the narrative may have proceeded 'alternatively'). Director Douglas Mackinnon employs some very showy camera work (which works) to set up the particular game which is afoot this time, with Natasha O'Keeffe's deathly pale bride being both dead and able to murder her way through some English aristocracy. For what seems like too short a time, this feature length offering is compelling, comedic, charming and immensely satisfying.
The second forty-five minutes however leaves more than one bitter taste. Solutions to 'unsolvable' mysteries are notoriously difficult to pull off to any measurable degree of satisfaction but The Abominable Bride's finale feels pitched from a point of superiority and lecturing, which fits only with the show's worst tonal moments. It's also telegraphed from very early on, when a character offers a piece of information to another character that doesn't seem to matter to anyone. Might it be of relevance later on? You be the judge.
Meanwhile, whilst the mystery which should have been central throughout is being simultaneously mangled and abandoned, Gatiss and Moffat revel in elements that should either be minor or simply not here at all. The greatest hits are pulled out (stunningly we end up back at Reichenbach Falls, for no real discernible reason) and the former gets to wear a Mr Creosote-esque fat suit (again, for no reason that really matters to anything).
If season three was Sherlock moving on, then this was Sherlock reminding you that it is still a show written by people who have a vast capacity for over-thinking things, which otherwise would be perfectly satisfying. TV should reach for new heights and try new things, but Gatiss and Moffat have been reaching for this particular new 'thing' for some time now and are yet to obtain it satisfactorily. It's now time to stop.