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?

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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 is assistant editor of the New Statesman, in charge of day to day running of the website and its sister site, CityMetric. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.