Why doesn’t everyone love this show? The third “season” of the BBC Masterpiece miniseries — a modern reimagining of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories — finished Sunday night and brought in about 3 million viewers. By comparison, Downton Abbey had more than twice as many viewers in the same week, and Culture Binge fave Scandal brought in three times that number for its season 2 finale last fall.
This is odd for a couple of reasons. First: The resurgent US obsession with Britishness that started with Harry Potter should, by extension, apply to Sherlock. Downton was (and to some extent, still is, although the quality of the show has dropped) appointment viewing. Since Sherlock is on the same channel, PBS — it even has Downton as a lead-in — I’d think it would bring in just as many fans by proximity alone. It’s true that the melodrama of Downton has a different feel from the tense, tight mysteries of Sherlock. But it’s not as if the show is one of those slasher SVU types — there’s very little graphic violence, and more than a little humor. Those Brits…they crack me up.
Second: Sherlock’s lead, Benedict Cumberbatch, is an actual movie star, with name recognition beyond that of anyone on Downton Abbey (except for the amazing Dowager Countess). The man even inspired a Tumblr name generator (try it out—and for the record, I got Beetlejuice Clombyclomp).
Third: Of late, there’s a glut of TV shows that rely, heavily, on the Holmes model of a “high-functioning sociopath” who solves crimes and has trouble making friends. (See also: The Bridge, The Killing, Broadside, Dexter, True Detective…the list goes on.) Modern TV viewers can’t seem to get enough of the anti-hero, but these shows don’t hold a candle to what Steven Moffat have concocted for the BBC. Sherlock does personal relationships better, the mysteries are more inventive, and the show is funnier than those dour, depressing, violent competitors.
Perhaps the format of the show — three movie-length episodes, with years between seasons — turns people off, but I find that hard to believe. The miniseries is a prime example of how TV can stay relevant in this age of Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, et al. It falls squarely into appointment viewing. It’s short-lived, condensed, and over before you can grow weary of it. This isn’t some 22-episode arc on ABC.
Finally (and then I’ll get off my soapbox) this is yet another area where we’re falling behind China, people. The Independent reported this week that the Chinese are head-over-heels for Sherlock like a 13-year-old swooning over Harry Styles. With a fourth season of Sherlock in the works, there’s plenty of time to get on your couch, turn on the English subtitles (those blokes speak quickly) and get caught up. It’s a mystery worth solving.