Sherlock’s New Special Is a Full Season of TV in One 90-Minute Episode

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Martin Freeman as John Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes. Robert Viglasky/Hartswood Films and BBC Wales for BBC One and MASTERPIECE

Lots of showrunners have a particular style: Aaron Sorkin and Amy Sherman-Palladino have distinctive pattering dialogue, Bryan Fuller has visual surrealism, Shonda Rhimes has damaged characters. And Steven Moffat has plot. Plots on a Moffat show twist and turn; timelines flip and reverse and fold back in on themselves. Lines of dialogue reverberate backwards and forwards and repeat throughout the delicate, Rube Goldberg–like engine of story that pulses underneath. This style has developed over the years, and the sensibility has taken over Doctor Who, but Sherlock is really where it is most at home.

At its best, Moffat style can be delicious to watch. It’s like watching endless interconnected lines of dominoes topple gently, one after the other, only to end up back where they started, collapsing into a perfectly round and endlessly intricate mosaic pattern. You watch them all go down, neat and unstoppably quick, and you can only step back and see the whole structure after they’ve all fallen.

Sherlock has always had this style baked in, but as the series has grown, it’s collected more and more grist to feed into the plot mill. With each new installment, there’s an ever-increasing body of characters and plots to loop back on, to tell and retell. And “The Abominable Bride,” the show’s latest 90-minute special, is the most excessive, most dramatic, and most over-the-top example of this kind of mayhem to date. It’s a pinnacle of Moffat plotting, but it also represents an odd inversion of the idea of peak TV. Rather than a huge wave of TV that consumes hours and days, Sherlock crams as much TV as possible into a mere 90 minutes.

Of all the Sherlock stories so far, “The Abominable Bride” is the most self-referential, and the most exhaustingly tricky. The beginning premise — Sherlock in Victorian clothes! — kicks off with a retelling of “A Study in Pink,” complete with Holmes and Watson’s first meeting in a morgue. Then we get the built-in story-within-a-story: Watson’s writing about Holmes in The Strand. And only then do we get what appears to be the real mystery, zombie bride Emilia Ricoletti, which is actually a series of murders, and is then actually a take-off on the Conan Doyle “Five Orange Pips,” and is then actually a whole story about suffragettes and how ladies are always overlooked. And then it turns out it’s current-day Holmes high on who knows what trying to figure out how Moriarty could come back from the dead, and then it’s actually a deep-down Reichenbach dream sequence with Holmes struggling against Moriarty as himself.

And that’s not the end of it: There are winking lines of dialogue about Holmes’s sexuality and the idea of a relationship with Watson, a not especially subtle way of trying to write the fanfiction into the fiction itself. There are perpetual references to and obsessions with falling. Anachronisms pepper the dialogue in the Victorian story, hinting at the twist to come. Watson accuses Holmes of quoting lines of dialogue Watson wrote for him in The Strand, which are actually lines from the Conan Doyle stories. Modern-day Moriarty wears Emilia’s bridal gown, and there’s a wound across his mouth echoing Victorian Lestrade’s earlier description of Emilia’s mouth “like a wound.”

This intense weight of stuff, almost all of it self-referential and in-jokey, can come off a couple different ways. Either you fall for it (ha!), buying into the viewer-as-detective position Moffat likes to put you in, or the whole thing looks like one guy crawling blindly up his own ass. Any way you split it, though, “The Abominable Bride” is hugely ambitious, and its overstuffed, overwritten nature is fascinating in the current TV landscape. There is, after all, so much TV right now, and in this respect, Sherlock is an oddity. From every corner, we’re drowning in hours of content — whole seasons that appear instantly on Netflix or Amazon, new series premiering throughout the calendar year, zombie shows returning from the dead, and that’s not even touching web video. Sherlock, in contrast, has released 90 minutes of content in the last two years. It is a drop in the bucket, a tiny speck in the torrent of programming.

And from this perspective, “The Abominable Bride” suddenly starts to look like something else. It’s not just another installment of Sherlock; it is all of Sherlock crammed into a tiny special. It’s trying to be its own fanfiction, and its own reboot, and its own criticism (“Is this silly enough for you yet? Gothic enough? Mad enough?”), and its own response to criticism (the whole suffragette thing), and a character piece and a political statement, and a Sherlock Holmes mystery, all at the same time. If peak TV is more hours of television than any one person can watch, Sherlock is peak TV through the looking glass: more Sherlocks in an hour than any one person can grasp.

The end result is, inevitably, a bit of a disaster. It is just too much, especially when the episode tries to shoehorn in an apology for the patriarchy, along with Sherlock and Moriarty grappling in the middle of a waterfall, giving a discourse on narrative and no one knows quite what else. (The apology for the patriarchy is especially ineffective when the installment itself then reenacts all of the male-centric blathering it purports to disrupt).  

Still, it’s hard not to be at least a little swayed by the bravado of the thing, especially when it’s such a swashbuckling, self-assured kind of bravado. “The Abominable Bride” may have bitten off more than it can chew, but it’s an occasionally glorious mess, fantastically bananas in the midst of its smug cleverness. And even more, it’s fun to see peak TV take on a different form. Instead of carving out its own little niche in the TV landscape, Sherlock seeks to do everything all at once, making it a bit like those crazily busy weekly shows (Empire or Scandal), but without the pressure-release valve of the next episode to take the edge off.

The risk, though, is that “The Abominable Bride” is too much ornamental nonsense for even the most dedicated audience, with lots of plot machinery and not enough actual human feeling. As Moriarty himself puts it, “The Abominable Bride” might be “too deep, Sherlock. Way too deep.” Or, put another way – too much of that Moffat style.