When Sherlock busted through a glass window on Wednesday night, said window might as well have been laser etched with the words “THE FOURTH WALL!” written in comic sans. Because folks: that was some bullshit.
Let me put all of my cards on the table here before I really get into it: I hate on-screen, canonized fan service of any kind and in any form. So there was no way that I was going to enjoy this episode. I can tolerate fan service and meta in-jokes and little winks at the audience on a show like Merlin or even Doctor Who. Family shows about magic and aliens and time travel — as much as they can be wonderfully written and engaging — naturally differ from a detective drama about a modern Sherlock Holmes in 21st Century London. Even then it wouldn’t be so bad if the writers were just sharing a small inside joke with their fanbase, but the premiere of Sherlock’s much anticipated third season might as well have been co-written by Tumblr. To an insane degree.
Because at the end of the day, The Empty Hearse was one long unfunny joke seeking to laugh with — and at — the show’s fans. And it’s the “laughing at” that I found the strangest. Take, for instance, at the way Anderson (formerly Sherlock’s low-stakes nemesis) has become a devoted fanboy who litters his walls with Sherlock theories. It’s hard not to see the correlation being drawn between conspiracy theorists and their walls of newspaper clippings and Tumblr users and their walls of gifs and fan art and long speculative debates. In short: Mark Gatiss is (lovingly) calling the fans fucking nuts. For the record, Tumblr picked up on that and didn’t care one bit (which might be further evidence of insanity, to be honest):
Then there’s the very literal Sherlock fan group composed of the kind of stereotypes people have come to associate with superfans — fatties, nerds, mouth-breathers, weirdos, crazies, etc. It’s an unfair but not particularly surprising portrayal that I don’t feel like delving much deeper into — it was lazy, let’s leave it there. Less lazy, but certainly confusing is the fact that in this show (which I guess exists in an alternate universe where real detectives are slavishly adored by fans), a modern 21st Century fan group sits around composing fanfiction orally — which leads to the first two fake-out “How did Sherlock fake his death” moments in the episode.
Honestly, the portrayal of fandom is what I found hardest to believe: the idea that these people were regularly meeting up in-person or that Anderson would be compiling physical newspaper clippings. While trying to grapple with and poke fun at their online fandom, writer (and co-star) Mark Gatiss ignored the “online” part completely. Maybe it works less from a narrative perspective to have a character furiously typing on a computer, but these elements still seemed woefully out of touch.
There are more minor meta winks as well, such as having Benedict Cumberbatch’s real parents — fellow actors Wanda Ventham and Timothy Carlton — play Sherlock’s parents (even if they look a bit young to have parented Mycroft). Or having Martin Freeman’s real partner, Amanda Abbington, play his fiancee, Mary Morston.
Then finally we descend into the all-out stupid : When Sherlock tells John that he’s, you know, not dead, he literally says “Not dead” which has been a meme since The Reichenbach Fall aired:
Add to that the extremely out of character and frankly ridiculous way in which Sherlock “reveals” himself to John, which was not in keeping with the tone of the show or the characters up to this point, but is definitely in keeping with the endless #notdead joke theories of how he would do it care of fantastic cartoonist, Shocking Blankets. Again, though, these comics are jokes. Surely it makes no sense for a man who everyone thought had been dead for two years to show up at a restaurant posing as a waiter with a fake ink mustache and French accent to “surprise” his friend with the news of his continued existence. Sherlock has been established as a bit of a cold, callous dickhead and an egomaniac, but that moment was a straight-up farce, including the slapstick fight routines that followed.
And really, that’s the only complaint that matters: the episode did not make sense within the context of the show. You want to wink at your fans? Go right ahead — but don’t do it in such a way that it suspends or defies the characterizations you’ve built. If you removed any knowledge of Tumblr from my mind, and sat down to watch this after having marathoned the first six episodes, wouldn’t you wonder what the hell happened? Were this a show with even 10 episodes, the occasional jokey write-off wouldn’t matter as much, but as it stands they’ve taken up a third of their time with inconsequential fan service. A single minisode that had some of these elements — the fan groups, crazy Anderson, even #notdead — would and could have sufficed. But after you peel away all of the cringe-y and eye-roll-y elements, you’re left with a weak mystery and almost no plot or character development. That’s not great for a half-hour show, and much worse for one with triple that run time.
In the wake of this episode, I’ve seen a lot of reviewers and bloggers asking if this is the first instance of a TV show cannibalizing its own fan fiction, because the heavy-handedness with which Sherlock’s fandom was referenced would not escape the notice of even the most technophobic and casual viewer.
For the record, it’s definitely not. I don’t watch Supernatural, but from Tumblr I’ve managed to piece together the fact that there was a series of episodes where the lead characters literally read fanfiction based on their characters, went to Supernatural conventions and were transported to alternate universes in which the show’s actors played the characters as though the fictional characters were indeed fictional characters within the context of the show. What I’ve also gleaned from Tumblr is that labeling these episodes “divisive” is a massive understatement.
All the same, it is fair to say that involving fanfiction theories or fan in-jokes within an actual show is still somewhat rare. And should remain so.
The problem with Sherlock is that nobody really expected it to amass the kind of rabid following that it has. Which might be unfair, given the fact that The Sherlock Holmes Society might be one of the first examples of a major fan group and has been going strong since 1951 and boasts at least one celebrity member in Stephen Fry — who also played Mycroft in the recent Robert Downey Jr. movie version. All the same, the Sherlock Holmes Society spans all books, stories, adaptations and shows — not just one single adaptation. When this new version premiered it was billed as a procedural show with a three-episode season that takes two-year hiatuses. To some extent, I think the furor surrounding Sherlock has people puzzled — including the show’s writers, creators and stars. Science fiction and fantasy have always had large and devoted fanbases, but who would’ve imagined that an updated version of Sherlock Holmes starring two previously little-known actors would become this internet phenomenon?
The key word is “internet,” and therein lies the problem. Remember Snakes on a Plane? People went fucking crazy for it. The trailer went “viral.” It was a huge marketing success — except for the part where people actually went to go see it. It turned out that you could get the joke of Snakes on a Plane without paying $10 and sitting through that one-note joke for two hours. So this massive internet campaign netted $34 million dollars domestically, and that was with a wide weekend release of over 3500 theaters. While that doesn’t make Snakes on a Plane a crushing failure, internet reaction was definitely not commensurate to financial success.
At the risk of pouring salt into some sad fanboy wounds, Serenity (based off of cancelled Joss Whedon show, Firefly) had a similar problem. Again, not a crushing failure, but all of the fanboy buzz and clamoring didn’t earn them a major hit either.
I guess we’ll see what happens with the Veronica Mars movie, but the trailer doesn’t give me a lot of hope. It’s not to say that Serenity was bad (it wasn’t), or that Veronica Mars will be bad (we’ll see), but rather that it seems like a bad idea to write a show or a movie for a tiny insular online fanbase, full of meta in-jokes and old references, if you want for it to have a wider appeal. Especially if said TV show was cancelled due to low viewing numbers.
Circling back to Sherlock, I’m worried that bowing to the fans will shut a wider and more casual audience out. I don’t participate in the online fandom, but I’m aware of it — it’s hard not to be if you’re on Tumblr for any length of time. But I suspect that what Mark Gatiss (who wrote the episode) and Steven Moffat (the show runner) have missed is that their rabid fans do not make up a huge portion of their viewership and relying on fan culture doesn’t pan out in the long run.