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Not even Sherlock could solve life's greatest mystery. Why am I still watching it?

The last episode where Sherlock and John just solved a crime was five years ago. How did such a brilliant show go wrong?

This contains spoilers. You have been warned.

"Sherlock started in 2010, seemed good at first, became shit - but you stick with it cos there's nothing better on," a Labour friend texted me last night.

"Remind you of anything?"

Indeed. We've been trying to convince ourselves that the show's writers know what they're doing – that there's some Long-Term Sherlock Plan at work – but every time anyone bothers to pay attention to what they're actually doing, the whole thing falls apart. It looks glossy and plausible, but none of it makes any sense.

Still. Showing it on on New Year's Day did at least provide a helpful reminder that 2017 was not the promised land and that this year is almost certainly going to be at least as bad as no I'm already depressed by that metaphor. 

So what actually happened in last night's fourth season opener? It started in MI5, cleaning up some threads from the last season (which was back in those carefree days of January 2014, so you could be forgiven for having forgotten). It then moved through a sort of montage of a series of mysteries, none of which we saw enough of to care about, and to spice things up a bit it threw in a baby for John and Mary Watson.

It looked momentarily, at the half-hour mark, like it was going to give us an actual locked-room mystery, which was by far the best bit of the show. But that lasted all of five minutes before Sherlock solved it and declared that another story in which someone was going round smashing busts of Margaret Thatcher was far more interesting, which unfortunately it wasn't. After that the whole thing turned into a dreary James Bond knock-off about John's wife Mary's former life as a government assassin, which ended with a minor character from the opening scene shooting her dead. This was a relief, in its way, but does mean we're probably going to be treated to another two episodes of the leads angst-ing at each other rather than actually solving any bloody crimes.

Oh, and John almost had an affair, but it wasn't immediately clear why (at least, if you discount the obvious reason). And there were quite a lot of shots of some sharks which might be a metaphor, but then again might just have been some sharks. And Sherlock kept repeating this fable about Death wandering the markets of Mesopotamia, which is presumably meant to be about the fact Mary's been on the run from her previous life, but for all I know maybe that was actually about the sharks or maybe John's affair of Mrs Hudson's mascara or who the hell even knows any more.

(You may have noticed that I've not bothered constructing an argument to connect my thoughts in any way here, instead presenting them as a collection of essentially random observations with nothing to bind them together. To which my response is: if it's good enough for Sherlock, it's good enough for me.)

None of this was really a radical departure for the show. Its first two seasons – which, alongside Benedict Cumberbatch's cheekbones, account for its huge international audience – were spectacular, each episode presenting a bunch of compelling mysteries and letting some incredibly watchable characters run around solving them.

The last episode to fit that pattern, though, was literally five years ago now, and in the intervening half decade the whole thing's gone weird on us. In the third season, the detectives-solving-some-crimes bit of the Holmes and Watson relationship took a bit of a backseat, and the show instead focused on their relationship. How would John deal with Sherlock being back from the dead? How would Sherlock deal with John getting married? What would the two of them be like drunk?

Last year's New Year's special was even more gimmicky, showing us what the 21st century re-imagining of theses characters would be like if they lived in the 19th century, which you might recall is where they came from in the first place – not so much a twist as a straighten – and then Sherlock woke up and it was all a dream. There was probably some plot in there too, but 12 months on I'll be damned if I can remember what it was.

As brilliant as Sherlock once was, it's now been pretty consistently disappointing for five years, which is longer than many shows even last. And yet, I'm still watching it, and I'll watch the rest of the season, too, even though it's almost certainly going to annoy the hell out of me.

The response to this on Twitter suggests a lot of people blame Steven Moffat for the show's decline. This is not entirely fair, partly because he must take much of the credit for making the show so successful in the first place, and partly because this particular episode was the work of co-creator Mark Gatiss. (Indeed, my main takeaway from the episode is: thank god they're not putting Gatiss in charge of Doctor Who.)

But I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest Sherlock's real problem is its format. It launched as a series of three, 90 minute episodes – TV movies, essentially – and has stuck to this religiously. The show may not be on often, but every time it is, it feels like an event.

This, though, has its downsides. For one thing, when you’re only doing three episodes every two years, there’s no room left for any filler: every one has to feel important. For another, it's apparently quite difficult to come up with mysteries worth stretching out over 90 minutes, so the show has increasingly opted to rush through half a dozen poorly-developed plots rather than giving us one properly-thought-through one. It's started to feel oddly like a clipshow of itself.

The other downside is less of a problem for the BBC than it is for the audience. It's this: because it's event television, we'll all still watch it. Watching three long episodes, even mediocre ones, feels like less of a commitment than watching a full length series of shorter ones. So, the ratings won't suffer, and I'll probably be back on Twitter whining about it again next Sunday night.

Why don't I just stop watching it? It's a mystery.

***

Now listen to a discussion of Sherlock on the NS pop culture podcast, SRSLY:

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.