He's back! Series 4 of 'Sherlock' on PBS

For those of us who feared the long layoff between the last and new series of SHERLOCK films for the BBC and America's Public Broadcasting System would produce either a radical change in tone or pure boredom, reassurance that the series is on the successful track it's followed was produced with the opener of the fourth set of episodes that aired New Year's Day.

"The Six Thatchers" was a fast-paced, complex yet compelling continuation of the adventures of the modern Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch), qualities that have made SHERLOCK a hit with audiences since its premiere in 2010. The combination of high-tech with Holmes' genius for deductive reasoning has settled well with fans of the Canon. It is also popular with new viewers attracted to the psychological exploration of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's great sleuth, who describes himself as "a high-functioning sociopath" who lives for the variety of puzzles contemporary crime and world politics present him.

It also tells us that Cumberbatch, seamlessly paired with Martin Freeman as his associate and chronicler Dr. John H. Watson, recognizes his career isn't defined by his Sherlock and is unafraid of returning to the role. Its is comforting for the viewer to see Cumberbatch, now enjoying a busy feature film career, and Freeman, star of the FX cable series FARGO's first season in 2014, return to Holmes and Watson and provide us with new variations on the characters.

Also a relief is the mixing of the classic Doyle stories into current times, a feat co-creators Mark Gatiss (who co-stars as Sherlock's unflappable older brother Mycroft) and Steven Moffat have pulled off both recognizably and convincingly. In the case of "The Six Thatchers," Gatiss drew upon "The Six Napoleons," in which a series of home invasions involving the smashing of small plaster busts leads the Great Detective to a frantic hunt for the missing Black Pearl of the Borgias. The story is familiar to fans of the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce movies as 1944's THE PEARL OF DEATH. However, in "The Six Thatchers" -- busts of Britain's first female prime minister standing in for the onetime French emperor -- the maguffin secreted in one of them is not the pearl but a computer memory chip that exposes a threat to Watson and his wife Mary (Amanda Abbington), as well Mary's previously shadowy background as a mercenary.

Resolution of the peril irrevocably changes everything for John and Mary, who have recently become parents, and strains the relationship between John and Sherlock to the breaking point as the episode closes -- and beckons those viewers already hooked by the program to readily tune in next Sunday night to see where this all takes us. It was a wise move on the part of Gatiss's script in that it has been almost three years since the airing of the final entry of SHERLOCK's third series, "His Last Vow." In that episode, Sherlock, briefly (all of four minutes) exiled for his slaying of the notorious tabloid publisher, blackmailer and all-around louse Charles Augustus Milverton, is pressed back into service when the supposedly-deceased "Jim" Moriarty makes a sudden reappearance. 

As "The Six Thatchers" opens, Mycroft has shifted the blame for Milverton's death onto someone else, Sherlock opts to continue investigating routine complaints while awaiting Moriarty's next (or any) moves, and is steered toward the curious matter of the shattered Margaret Thatcher busts by Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves).

"The Six Thatchers" also did much to erase the bad taste left over from SHERLOCK's stopgap one-off of 2016, "The Abominable Bride," the misstep that inexplicably presented Sherlock and John in the characters' original Victorian setting, then passed it off as a figment of the contemporary Sherlock's tortured mind. Maintaining the formula of cleverly adapting Doyle's stories to present times is the best path for Gatiss, Moffat and producer Sue Vertue to take, and the homage to the Doyle stories as well the movies they yielded is appreciated. 

In "The Six Thatchers," Sherlock not only employs the bloodhound Toby in a reference to the novel THE SIGN OF FOUR, but also borrows the final line from "The Yellow Face" when he advises Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) to mention the villain's name to him whenever he gets too cocksure of his abilities. There may be other such flashes of recognition in the episode, but the ones mentioned here are a welcome touch.

All in all, the return of SHERLOCK is a boon to the fans and proof, along with the thematically similar ELEMENTARY, now in its fifth season on CBS, that the cool, rational defender of law and order in a complicated world has maintained his popularity


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