Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mysteries are about a lot of things — crime, clues, social mores, thrilling adventures, weird science and colorful villains. But at their heart is the friendship of two lonely men: wounded war veteran Dr. John Watson and eccentric consulting detective Sherlock Holmes.
Thrown together as flat mates, the two men become investigative partners, confidants and the stars of their own stories, written by Watson. But as close as friends can be, they remain separate people. Sooner or later, life — and death — will intrude.
On Sunday, Jan. 19 (check local listings), PBS and the BBC’s version of “Sherlock,” starring Benedict Cumberbatch as Holmes and Martin Freeman as Watson, returns to “Masterpiece Mystery!” for a third season of three 90-minute episodes, paired with another blockbuster hit, “Downton Abbey.”
In the opener, called “The Empty Hearse,” Holmes has faked his death in a leap from the roof of St. Bart’s Hospital in London. When he resurfaces, Watson is less interested in how the fake death was staged than why his best friend left him grieving for two years without a word.
Holmes has two daunting tasks: Stop a terrorist attack on London, and repair his relationship with Watson — who has moved on with his own life.
After all, Scripture says that a man should leave his father and mother and become one flesh with his wife. It becomes a bit trickier when, instead of parents, there’s a prickly friend who has just come back from the wilderness and now faces the prospect of being left out in the cold for good.
Created by “Doctor Who” producers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, “Sherlock” also stars Una Stubbs as Mrs. Hudson, Gatiss as Mycroft Holmes, Andrew Scott as Moriarty, Rupert Graves as Detective Inspector Lestrade, and Amanda Abbington as Watson’s fiancee, Mary Morstan.
“Obviously,” Moffat tells Zap2it, “the return of Sherlock Holmes is a gift, because you’ve got so much fun with him reappearing to all those characters, revealing that he’s not dead. That’s an exciting thing to do.
“One thing that’s always troubled me since childhood, or has always amused me since childhood, is that Sherlock Holmes must have been Dr. Watson’s best man. There could have been nobody else. So he must have been the best man, so he must have made a speech.
“I’ve always wanted to know what that speech is like, so we worked up the temerity to do that. So you’ll see what happens when Sherlock Holmes is your best man.”
While Holmes is patching things up with Watson and trying to find his place in his now-wed friend’s life, he’s also facing down a chilling new foe. Based on Doyle’s literary villain Charles Augustus Milverton, new “big bad” Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen) not only has a different name but some new twists and turns that really get under Holmes’ skin.
“He’s the one villain,” says Moffat, “that Sherlock Holmes noticeably hates. He doesn’t really hate Moriarty, and he’s largely indifferent to most of them, but he genuinely hates this one. So we tried to do our best with that story.
“Sherlock” is unique in the run of Holmes adaptations, since Cumberbatch is a couple of decades younger than many actors cast in the part, including the movies’ Basil Rathbone and television’s Jeremy Brett. While Moffat lauds his acting ability and skill with humor, he also thinks Cumberbatch brings something more.
“Everyone would be inclined to say,” remarks Moffat, “that he brought sex appeal to Sherlock. I suppose there has been more enthusiasm among women for this version of Sherlock Holmes than is normally the case.”