★★☆☆☆

Two Stars

“From now on, there’s a new story, a bigger adventure. Today begin the adventures of Mary Elizabeth Watson and John Hamish Watson”, Sherlock Holmes announces in his Best Man speech in Episode 2 of the new series of the BBC TV hit. The episode marks the show’s transformation from what Sherlock calls “ridiculous adventures of murder, mystery and mayhem” into a soppy love fest with a weak plot. And yet, it seems, the public was enthralled. The degeneration of one of TV’s most thrilling shows gives another insight into our society’s unquenchable thirst for the sentimental.

The crime sequence before the opening credits is nothing more than an elaborate set-up for a low-grade one-liner. A whirl of headlines announces, “Bank Gang Leaves Cops Clueless”. Just as Lestrade is about to catch these serial criminals red-handed, a text comes from Holmes, pleading for urgent help at Baker Street. “Lock the place down”, Lestrade orders his forces, racing to Holmes’s flat only to find out that the detective needs help thinking of ‘funny stories about John’ for his speech. Apparently this is a more pressing storyline.

Wedding preparations and the wedding itself dominate the rest of the episode. All this has the makings of a Richard Curtis production, replete with a sex-crazed bridesmaid, boozy stag-do and tired old jokes about male aversion to wedding planning. Even the acting skills of Cumberbatch and Freeman could not redeem these toe-curling attempts at humour. The happy occasion eventually (and not a moment too soon…) becomes the setting for attempted murder.

Meanwhile, the character of Sherlock is losing coherence. The speech, which is rambling and aimless (admittedly, such is the intention, but that doesn’t make it any easier to watch), reveals Sherlock to be simultaneously outright rude and cloyingly corny. He calls himself “the most all-round obnoxious asshole that anyone could possibly have the misfortune to meet”. Hard to disagree when he likens marriage to a Deathwatch beetle, calls God a fantasy and the bridesmaids plain. His unpleasantness also emerges when he charmlessly orders Mrs Hudson to get him biscuits, and bullies Mary’s ex. This trademark insensitivity stands in stark contrast to the note-perfect schmaltz that Holmes then dishes up for the wedding crowd. Even the first sign of an actual plot – ‘The Bloody Guardsman’ – becomes another opportunity for Sherlock to lavish praise on John: “I will solve the crime, but John Watson will save your life”.

Visual tricks, which at first were exciting and original, are becoming gimmicky and distracting. A mental game of “Take Me Out” with women who believe they’ve dated a ghost is soon followed by a snazzy version of “Guess Who” with the wedding guests, as an apparition of Mycroft holds court in Sherlock’s subconscious.

The audience is normally left reeling from the speed of Sherlock’s deductions; this crime, though, was oddly obvious. Sherlock takes a while to identify the target as Major Sholto, whom Watson had told Sherlock had “even more death threats than you”, and it is eventually 10-year-old Archie who launches the theory that the murderer is “the invisible man!” Even Sherlock’s razor-sharp deductions are becoming tenuous, when he reasons that a waterproof phone case must automatically imply illicit texting sessions in the shower. Really, Sherlock?

The episode’s title comes from Conan Doyle’s “The Sign of the Four” (though perhaps “Sherlock Actually” might have been more apt). All it shares with the tale are a couple of names – ‘General Sholto’ and ‘Jonathan Small’. Perhaps we need more of Conan Doyle’s storylines – poison darts and pygmy sidekicks would have made better viewing than Watson and Holmes’ endless tipsy Post-It Note game. 

In Conan Doyle’s story, Holmes berates Watson for romanticising crime, which he compares to working “a love story or an elopement into the fifth proposition of Euclid”.  Have the TV scriptwriters fallen into the same trap? The next episode (the season’s finale) will be the test. How is this cold-hearted and cerebral genius-detective to be saved from our culture’s self-indulgent love of the rom-com genre?