"A matter has come to light of an extremely delicate and potentially criminal nature, and in this hour of need, dear brother, your
name has arisen."
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"Why? You have a police force of sorts...even a marginally secret service. Why come to me?"
"People do come to you for help, don't they, Mr. Holmes?"
"Not to date anyone with a Navy."
The second season of Sherlock delivers more of the same, and honestly, that's the highest possible compliment I can think to give.
Of course, anyone reading this review doesn't need a hard sell. "A Scandal in Belgravia", the first of these three feature-length updates of classic Sherlock Holmes stories, picks up immediately where the previous season finalé's cliffhanger left off. Those who missed out on the brilliance of that initial season -- Sherlock's incendiary wit, its dazzling visual flair, that extraordinary chemistry between Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman), and, of course, several first-rate mysteries -- would do well to start there instead. As for those who've already been initiated, rest easy that this sophomore season of Sherlock builds off the strengths of its fantastic, if slightly uneven, first year. As strong as that first series was, season two somehow manages to be better still.
"A Scandal in Belgravia" introduces Irene Adler (played here by Lara Pulver) to this incarnation of Sherlock. Here, she's a scheming dominatrix who's amassed a sprawling collection of compromising photos with her wealthy and powerful clients. Among them is a member of the Royal Family, and Buckingham Palace enlists Holmes' assistance in staving off yet another scandal. With his trademark supreme confidence, Sherlock announces that he'll have the photos back in a matter of hours, but he all too quickly finds that in Irene Adler he has met his match. Adler counters the detective at every turn. He's unable to get any sort of a read on her, and every measure Holmes has taken to ensure victory spills all over her bedroom floor in embarrassment. Sherlock is outmatched, and, as he discovers that his isn't the only government with Adler in their crosshairs, he soon realizes he's outgunned as well.
I couldn't hope for a more spectacular start to this long-awaited season than "A Scandal in Belgravia". Both seasons of Sherlock routinely pit the inhumanly brilliant detective against worthy adversaries -- wouldn't be much of a series, after all, if Holmes had it easy -- but Irene Adler in particular makes for a fascinating antagonist. Moriarty plagues Holmes with unanswerable questions and insurmountable obstacles, and the challenge is in overcoming the impossible. With Adler, it's more of a chess game. No matter what strategies Holmes devises, Adler long ago has taken measures to shrug them aside, and the relentless oneupsmanship between the two of them is a thrill to watch unfold. Maintaining control is central to her life and her chosen career, and Adler is readily able to defeat Holmes in a way he never has been before. Especially with the way in which she has been brought to life by Lara Pulver, it's not the least
bit difficult to see why Holmes would find Adler so wholly and completely entrancing. Setting that dynamic aside for a moment, "A Scandal in Belgravia" also delivers the most elaborate and manically paced mystery of the entire run of the series. What Holmes is tasked to solve at the outset is essentially unrecognizable by the end, as layer after layer after layer is gradually stripped away. Much like the character of Adler herself, "A Scandal in Belgravia" is elusive, wildly unpredictable, and never less than compelling.
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The Hound of the Baskervilles is, it rather goes without saying, the best-known and most widely-adapted of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. This heavily updated version, retitled "The Hounds of Baskerville", resculpts the titular Baskerville into a government research facility. Henry Knight (Russell Tovey) looked on helplessly decades ago as his father was mauled to death by some sort of hulking beast on the outskirts of that facility, and those memories have once again started to consume him. That hound has gotten to be somewhat of a local legend; think Nessie on the moors. Holmes and Watson don't buy into the urban legend of the beast or the nefarious goings-on at that British equivalent of Area 51, but they mount an investigation just the same, and what they uncover rattles the detective to his core...
In much the same way that Sherlock's first season sagged somewhat in the middle, "The Hounds of Baskerville" is the least remarkable of this year's adaptations. That's not at all to say that it's a misfire, however, and I appreciate how much of a change of pace it offers. There is something to be said for swapping out the scenery, leaving the urban sprawl of London behind in favor of something so much more lush and pastoral. Holmes is defined in large part in Sherlock through the challenges he faces, and he generally approaches each of them with the greatest of confidence. Here, Holmes struggles with a nemesis with which he's never before had to struggle: self-doubt. He witnesses something entirely impossible -- something he can't possibly rationalize -- and the effect is devastating. Further setting "The Hounds of Baskerville" apart from the rest of the series is its tone. It's a proper horror film in part, unnervingly suspenseful and atmospheric in the most classic sense. Its approach is more psychological in nature rather than overtly visceral, and it's executed with tremendous skill. Though the science throughout "The Hounds of Baskerville" is more grounded than it may seem at first glance, it does come across as more fantastic than Sherlock generally allows itself to be. I realize that Sherlock isn't exactly touting itself as a documentary, but in much the same way the Eastern mysticism of "The Blind Banker" felt as if it belonged in a different series altogether, this sort of super-science doesn't quite work for me. I don't feel as if it quite sticks the landing either, drawing to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Perhaps just because I'm such a sucker for those genre elements, I still greatly enjoyed "The Hounds of Baskerville", flaws and all. It at the very least shows a willingness to take risks with the formula, and that's greatly welcome to see.
After sitting out so much of this season, Moriarty (Andrew Scott) makes his triumphant return in "The Reichenbach Fall". Holmes and Watson are less
private detectives these days than widely celebrated heroes, mainstays on the front page of every tabloid in the UK. With a few swipes on a smartphone, Moriarty sends that all crumbling down. Inside the space of just a couple of minutes, he has his hands on the crown jewels, he's cracked open the vault at the Bank of England, and the doors of Pentonville Prison spontaneously unlock themselves. It's not a heist or a breakout in the usual sense. Moriarty takes nothing. He instead sits comfortably on his throne and waits to be captured. The point is purely to show that he can do it, and with the name he has so quickly made for himself, Moriarty isn't exactly breaking a sweat about his impending day in court. This proves to be the first step of Moriarty's plan to destroy Sherlock. It's not something as common as murder, which would hardly be a challenge for someone of Moriarty's towering genius. He systematically dismantles the detective, stripping bare Holmes' closest friendships, savaging his reputation, and unraveling most everything the man had ever accomplished. In the end, Holmes is forced to make an impossible decision, one from which he cannot possibly recover.
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"The Reichenbach Fall" brings this season of Sherlock to a breathtaking close. Steve Thompson's script deftly toys with the audiences' expectations and with technology-as-magic tropes. I'll confess to not having been entirely sold on Andrew Scott as Moriarty prior to this, but his performance here is flawless. The character before was a frothing-at-the-mouth madman, prone to careening wildly over-the-top, but here Moriarty is far more convincing as a sinister genius. He raises the stakes as never before seen on Sherlock, connecting with precision not just on the intellectual and visceral wavelengths that the series so often does, but on a emotional, heartfelt level as well. "The Reichenbach Fall" may be the most singularly thrilling and emotionally devastating installment of the six feature-length adaptations we've seen thus far, building to a crescendo that left my jaw agape.
Sherlock, as if you need me to tell you, is one of the most extraordinary series on television, and it's greatly appreciated to be able to watch these three feature-length adaptations as they were originally intended to be seen rather than the viciously edited versions that have aired on these shores. Better described as a series of movies rather than episodes, this season of Sherlock boasts the same dazzling wordplay, relentlessly engaging mysteries, and lush characterization that made its first three installments such an immediate sensation the world over. The series' ensemble is used to the greatest possible effect, able to better flesh out this world now that the setup of the first season is out of the way. I thought that initial season ended on a hell of a cliffhanger, but the final moments of "The Reichenbach Fall" leave me breathlessly anticipating the next season as I'm not sure I ever have before for a television series. Very, very Highly Recommended.
This second season of Sherlock looks terrific on Blu-ray, very much in keeping with the high standards set by the previous collection. The
photography is lush and cinematic throughout, razor-sharp and brimming with fine detail. The palette generally skews rather cold and muted, although its colors can be strikingly vibrant when appropriate. On the other hand, black levels rarely impress, and contrast tends to be on the flat side. As Sherlock was shot at 1080p25, a framerate that most displays on this side of the pond can't handle, this presentation had to be converted to 1080i60. There unavoidably are some artifacts from the conversion, and it accentuates the fact that Sherlock was lensed on video rather than film. That does little to diminish my enthusiasm for what is overall a tremendous looking Blu-ray set, and I can't recommend it highly enough.
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The second season of Sherlock is spread across a pair of BD-50 discs. All three feature-length episodes are presented in their broadcast aspect ratio of 1.78:1.
Somewhat disappointingly, Sherlock is limited to Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (448kbps) only, and it's DVD quality in the most literal sense. I don't think a dialogue-driven series such as this would've sounded astonishingly different with lossless audio in place, but Sherlock is still more meek and subdued than what I would normally have expected to hear. That increased fidelity and ferocity so often showcased on Blu-ray are lacking here. Essentially a stereo track, the surrounds are rarely put to much greater purpose than reinforcing the score. The only sequence across all three feature-length installments that use them to any great effect is an unseen creature stalking his prey in "The Hounds of Baskerville". Those brief moments are remarkably unnerving and atmospheric, but that's more or less it for the season. Even in the daring, dramatic heists that open "The Reichenbach Fall" -- with as frantic and chaotic as the aftermath of all of that is -- the surrounds are dead silent. The subwoofer rarely makes its presence known either, at least outside of the pounding percussion in the score. On the other hand, Sherlock's brilliant dialogue is consistently rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, and clearly that's the most critical thing. Sherlock is perfectly listenable on Blu-ray, but I do believe a proper lossless soundtrack easily would've added another star to the 'Audio' rating.
A second Dolby Digital 5.1 track features a Parisian French dub. Subtitles, meanwhile, are limited to English.
- Audio Commentaries: "A Scandal in Belgravia" and "The Hounds of Baskerville" are both accompanied by commentary tracks.
The commentary for "A Scandal in Belgravia" features producer Sue Vertue, writers/producers Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, and actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Lara Pulver. It's an infectiously fun listen, overflowing with personality and relentlessly chatty. The commentary begins by addressing the eighteen month gap between seasons as well as how the characters and their dynamics
evolved in that time. From there, the conversation covers everything from a femme fatale coif to hydraulic-powered mirror sorcery to the crew of Sherlock themselves fleeing from the police. If you're curious how much of the violin Cumberbatch can actually play or if you're desperate to hear everything humanly conceivable about Holmes' coat, you'll no doubt find this commentary to be a rewarding listen.
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Gatiss, Moffat, and Pulver return for the second commentary, joined on "The Hounds of Baskerville" by guest star Russell Tovey. This is by far the meatier of the two audio commentaries, delving into Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's body of work, taking a certain cue from Jaws about how to deal with one production hiccup, and noting how the BBC originally was eyeing a set of six hour-long episodes rather than three feature-length installments. If you were keeping your fingers crossed for Moffat to namedrop Doctor Who, you'll have something to look forward to here, along with tales of Richard Nixon in the aftermath of seeing an alien corpse and the revelation that fluorescent rabbits truly are a thing.
- Sherlock Uncovered (19 min.; HD): Sherlock's making-of featurette skews somewhat promotional at first, chatting up the cast, touching on the stories being adapted this year, and generally noting what a staggering global success the first three installments proved to be. The emphasis after that is heavily directed towards the effects work, interestingly enough, and with that comes a great deal of behind-the-scenes footage. Benedict Cumberbatch also quips about the delivery of Holmes' breathless deductions. Not terribly substantial but enjoyable enough just the same.
The second season of Sherlock arrives on Blu-ray in a standard width case, and it comes packaged in a flat, cardboard slipcover. No liner notes or the like are tucked inside.
The Final Word
The first season of Sherlock proved to be one of my favorite discoveries of the past couple of years, and its sophomore season somehow manages to surpass those already dizzying heights. All three of this year's feature-length adaptations are phenomenal, and it's greatly appreciated to be able to experience these stories as originally intended rather than in the truncated form that aired on PBS. The uninitiated would be better served to start with the first season, but established fanatics owe it to themselves to pick up this most recent season of one of the most extraordinary series on television. Highly Recommended.