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The second season of BBC's Sherlock is an act of stabilization after a violent tremor. The quake, as it were, is the arrival of James Moriarty, the eponymous crime fighter's arch nemesis, here played with a taste for the demented by Andrew Scott. Sherlock's exemplary first season is capped off with the first appearance of Scott's Moriarty, at a high noon-type showdown at a sports club pool against Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Dr. John Watson (the invaluable Martin Freeman), and, as one might expect, the second season is something like Moriarty's cotillion ball.
Made up of three feature-length episodes, the second season nevertheless oddly only really gets into the adversarial nature of Sherlock and Moriarty's relationship in the final and best episode, "The Reichenbach Fall," in which Moriarty sets up Sherlock as a kidnapper, murderer, and utter sham in the public eye. Elsewhere, Moriarty's hold over all things evil and duplicitous isn't felt nearly as strongly, including his control and perversion of Sherlock's quasi-love interest, the mysterious Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), who, in the first episode, is targeted for withholding risqué photos of her with a female member of the Royal Family.
Publicity, both good and bad, is a major theme of the second season, which begins properly with Watson working furiously on his blog, which has become a minor sensation, detailing Sherlock's exploits. What's more, the show's most revisited joke concerns Sherlock's fury over being photographed wearing a deerstalker, the hat that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's original hero can't be imagined without. As one might deduce from such occurrences, the Sherlock series is a bit playful with its mythology, which certainly adds to its novelty, but also hinders the power of the show's narrative pull.
Indeed, each crime that Sherlock encounters, not to mention every victim, save Adler, seems to be a passing fancy, secondary to Sherlock's uneasy friendship with Watson or his admittedly engaging sibling rivalry with older brother Mycroft (series co-creator and BBC stalwart Mark Gatiss). And if the series developed these two relationships past the parameters initially set up by Gatiss, his co-creator Steven Moffat, and the series's writers, this might not be a flaw necessarily. As it stands, however, the series lacks in conflict, largely due to lack of any real nemesis other than the largely absent Moriarty. In the second season's weakest episode, a retelling of the canonical "Hounds of Baskerville" narrative, the show's attempt to tend to a vast array of storylines rather than focusing on the mystery itself (that of a ferocious murder and a series of horrific sightings of the titular beast) waters down the show's sense of conflict and challenge.
Ironically, it all boils down to the reality that it's now not enough that Sherlock and, on occasion, Watson simply act intelligent and clever; the show itself must seem clever and relevant and hyper-aware. It's a fault of ambition, which is ultimately the easiest sort of flaw to forgive and yet the one that most spoils the fun of good detective shows. One need only look at derivatives of Holmes, such as Hugh Laurie's Gregory House and Idris Elba's John Luther, to see how the initial embracement of episodic structure and cop procedure can give foundation to explore bigger, more ambitious storylines as a series moves ahead.
For all its minor pleasures, Sherlock is a show that's appropriated totems of modernity without much reason, other than to see its titular protagonist become befuddled or enraged by its fickle curiosities and endless accumulation; the blog, texting, cell phones, and other advances are merely new ways for Sherlock to proudly flex or pathetically guard his rampant ego. The direction, courtesy of Paul McGuigan and Toby Haynes, admirably tries to convey the onslaught of technology and social media visually, but the result is more hectic than full bodied. Only the performances, from Cumberbatch and Freeman to Una Stubbs's Mrs. Hudson and Rupert Graves's Lestrade, are excellent across the board, consistently grounding the interesting but structurally unsound screenwriting. As written here, Holmes is, in his way, as hyperactive as the culture he lives in, needing of a constant cerebral fix and without much in the realm of patience or calm of mind. Yet, we're still asked to see him as something above that, something rare: a brilliant, bemused mind at the calm and ready in the violent torrent of a perverse, unhinged society.
Image/Sound: (4 out of 5 star rating)
BBC has done some nice work with its 1080p AVC-encoded transfer of the second season of Sherlock. Visually, the show is very busy, but with the exception of some minor crush and banding issues, the transfer peerlessly brings out all the colors and textures of the show. Clarity and sense of detail is extremely good, though there's some grain-like noise that's noticeable, albeit never hugely distracting. Black levels are inky and beautiful. We don't get an HD-DTS soundtrack, but the Dolby Digital more than gets the job done, with dialogue clear, crisp and out front. The lively score and ample sound effects are nicely balanced in back. Not a home run, but a very good-looking and sounding transfer nonetheless.
Extras: (2 & 1/2 out of 5 star rating)
Benedict Cumberbatch and Lara Palver engage nicely with the material in the commentary for "A Scandal in Bohemia," with producer Sue Vertue and show co-creators Steve Moffat and Mark Gatiss. There's rarely a lull in the conversation and all members sound enlivened with the discussion of the episode and the series in general. The commentary for "The Hounds of Baskerville" is less involving, but an informative listen regardless. The 20-minute behind-the-scenes featurette, I imagine, will be a treat for more die-hard fans of the shows, though it ultimately feels more like an elongated promo trailer than anything else.
Overall: (3 & 1/2 out of 5 star rating)
A fun but slight frenzy of nerd love, the second season of Sherlock arrives on Blu-ray from BBC in a suitably handsome package with a strong visual/audio transfer.