The increasing high-profile ubiquity of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman has been hard on poor Sherlock. The BBC detective series is going on six years from its debut in 2010 and has only aired a measly nine episodes over the course of three seasons. So rigorous are the demands of the stars’ careers (including major upcoming Marvel gigs for both Cumberbatch and Freeman) that their schedules only allowed for a single episode to be produced within the past year, with a full fourth season still far off on the horizon. That special, Sherlock: The Abominable Bride, is going to have to tide us over for awhile before we settle back into another arduously long wait, the natural state for Sherlock fans.
The Abominable Bride sets itself up as an alternate-universe what-if, a glimpse at what this modernized incarnation of the Sherlock Holmes mythos would look like played straight and restored to Arthur Conan Doyle factory settings. Thus we’re transported back to Victorian London, with a Sherlock Holmes (Cumberbatch) who wears his deerstalker cap proudly, chomps on a pipe and carries on with a Dr. Watson (Freeman) fixed with a real humdinger of an old-timey mustache. In this reality, John Watson writes up Sherlock’s tales, his florid essays essentially acting as an in-universe method of hanging a lantern on aspects of Conan Doyle’s works. Sherlock bristles at many of the literary embellishments John has assigned to him, while the duo’s long-suffering landlady Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) accosts John for her barely being mentioned at all. The special also reconceives Sherlock’s brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) as the more sedentary version of the character from the books, though taking the additional leap of making him a morbidly obese glutton.
The Klump-ification of Mycroft perfectly encapsulates the tone that The Abominable Bride sets its aim upon. Seemingly freed from the shackles of continuity, the special amuses itself mightily by reducing its characters to broadly cartoonish versions of themselves. Scotland Yard ally Lestrade (Rupert Graves) is now an outright buffoon rather than a viable inspector constantly one-upped by Sherlock. Pathologist Molly Hooper (Louise Brealey) still oversees activity at the morgue, but does so in wildly unconvincing drag (replete with fake mustache) so as to function in what was then exclusively a man’s field. The goofy reductiveness even extends to Sherlock and John themselves. This Mr. Holmes is even more of an insufferably arrogant windbag than his present-day counterpart, this Watson is far more of a dullard, and the mutual respect that has always existed between the characters is virtually nonexistent. This is perhaps intended as yet more pointed subversion of the original text, but downscaling the complexity of these characters and their relationships with one another as a goof feels diminishing rather than freeing.
The game that’s afoot in The Abominable Bride centers on the legend of Emilia Ricoletti, a scorned wife who went on a shooting spree from a balcony before firing a bullet into her own mouth. However, shortly after her death, she is witnessed gunning down her lech of a husband. In the months that follow, this vengeful spirit is spotted all around London, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. As Sherlock giddily investigates the matter, he is determined to ascertain how someone who has blown their brains out can still hold agency over the world subsequent to that. And it is here where The Abominable Bride reveals that it’s not merely the fanciful offshoot it had presented itself to be, but actually is rooted in the series’ regular continuity. Returning from the minutes-long exile he endured at the close of the Season 3 finale, modern-day Sherlock is buried deep within his mind palace, and the 19th Century exploits we have witnessed are the results of him mentally immersing himself into that era as a means of solving the Ricoletti case long after the fact. The similarities between Ricoletti and the seemingly resurrected Moriarty (Andrew Scott) are so strong that Sherlock feels that cracking the Ricoletti case will inform how to proceed with his archnemesis.
By attempting to have it both ways, blending alt-world frivolity with narrative advancement, The Abominable Bride feels highly disjointed. Operating as a costume lark would have been fine for a playful discursion, but attempting to graft it onto the series proper simply doesn’t work. The notion that Sherlock would need to create a 1800s fantasy world and solve an ancient cold case to wrap his head around Moriarty’s return feels absurd, but more to the point, it adds virtually nothing to the series going forward. The only salient intel that The Abominable Bride provides us with is that Moriarty is probably indeed actually dead, but that his schemes are continuing from beyond the grave (though not in the supernatural sense; think Jigsaw in the later Saw sequels), which is something that I wager most of the viewing audience likely already had strongly considered. Beyond that, the special does finally introduce the element of Sherlock’s famed usage of illicit substances as a means of expanding his deductive skills, but I don’t know that this was the best venue in which to drop such a major revelation.
Still, The Abominable Bride is the only Sherlock we’re going to get any time soon, and even caricatured, fantasy-world variants of these characters are better than going cold-turkey for years on end. The special’s major crime is being a bit too ambitious for its own good. Perhaps as a salve for the paucity of airtime, The Abominable Bride attempts to cram in far too much material for it to get its arms around. The drug revelation doesn’t land like it should, and a female-empowerment subplot all but falls by the wayside amid all the fan service, trope-winking and table setting. Sherlock may only come around once in a blue moon, but even our intrepid hero cannot handle a caseload packed this tightly.
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