There was a time in the 20th Century when a TV series would run up to 26 episodes per season to be worthy of the name. Those were the days!
Sherlock frustratingly drip feeds us 3 episodes - but what episodes they are. The best writing, acting and directing I've seen in some time, and wonderful entertainment. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss have created something new and inspiring.
The first 30 minutes of A Scandal in Belgravia are near perfect TV. Then it drifts off into familiar Moffatisms, and excitement wanes. Too many extraneous plot twists, over egging an already tasty pudding; cleverness for the sake of cleverness, diluting rather than enhancing dramatic tension.
There seems to be a belief among TV execs these days that the audience demands outrageous or fantastical plot twists. As if all the great credible stories have been worn out, leaving only the surreal and outrageous to inspire 'water cooler' conversation. Whether it's 'Luther', 'Ashes to Ashes', 'Dr Who', or 'Sherlock' - there's no pretence that any of this could actually happen in the real world. They're all explicit or implicit fantasies that dart off in weird directions when the writers think we least expect it.
By the end of 'A Scandal in Belgravia' Moffat has provided explanations which give the episode internal logic. But that doesn't change the fact that while you're watching it enjoyment is hampered by the breaking of audience trust and a narrative impetus which goes missing in action.
Specifically I'm talking about the fifty minute mark - when the plot loses the will to go on. Everyone goes to a party because there's nothing more pressing to do - always a bad sign at the mid-point - and, despite another beautifully written scene, the question arises: 'What's this got to do with anything so far?'
Ah - now Adler's dead - Sherlock Holmes has said so after inspecting the corpse. Sherlock doesn't get things like that wrong, that's the whole point of the character, and both he and the authorities tell us she's dead. So she's dead, the episodes over, and you could happily tie the beheading reversal on right here with a couple of other expositions and wrap up a 'Dr Who' length episode. But there's still 40 minutes to go - so what are we to do?
Ten minutes of meandering 'mourning' later she's alive again. "Woo!"? Not really. My bum was shifting at this point - shall I make a cup of tea? - and internal logic had stretched to breaking point. She's got some half-assed explanation as to how/why she fooled not just the authorities but everyone she knows and the world's most careless and unobservant detective to boot - but the effect was disengaging. Killing your antagonist off screen and then reanimating them moments later tends to have that effect. You can justify anything retrospectively by revealing a consulting criminal is messing with Sherlock's mind, but in a dramatic sense it's simply a turn off. I ended up watching the end out of interest and loyalty rather than because I was truly gripped.
Adler's in and out of second storey windows like a trampolinist, posting the most valuable possession in her world around like a party invite, returning lost coats and doing magical things to the internal workings of an i-phone, sleeping in your bed for no other reason than the plot demands it, and - AHA - none of this was about Adler anyway it was all about a bomb on a plane. Really? The opening jokes and James Bond line were nice plants but you can't just throw that in at the 70 minute mark and expect us to care. The episode's about Irene Adler, and all this dicking about has just diluted the real resolution - the lovely business with the pulse and how he never loved her for a moment anyway.
And don't get me started on why they felt the need to reinterpret a strong, sexy, woman as a sex worker. The debate would be unending.
In contrast 'The Hounds of Baskerville' is more exciting and satisfying as a whole - without the dazzling elan of 'Belgravia's' individual scenes. Gatiss shows that it doesn't matter if the world knows your story or your 'dramatic conventions' - you can still build impetus and subvert audience expectation at the same time.
The point is - you can deliver innovative television and keep a traditional narrative arc to riff off. The best of all worlds, just as it ever was.
And the final episode is FANTASTIC!