For Sherlock fans, the seemingly endless wait is almost over. Nearly two years ago, Sherlock Holmes flung himself off the roof of St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in front of his horrified friend Dr. John Watson, only to appear in the very last frame of the episode alive but in hiding. Called one of TV’s best cliffhangers, it’s kept viewers theorizing madly about how he survived what appeared to be a fatal plunge. Finally, the acclaimed series’ new season begins on PBS’s Masterpiece on Jan. 19, with a “logical solution,” co-creator Steven Moffat promises.
It’s taken 609 days to get answers; getting Sherlock’s creative forces together has been a logistical nightmare. That’s because they’re some of the most in-demand talents in film and TV. Moffat is the showrunner for Dr. Who, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, while co-creator Mark Gatiss has a packed writing and acting schedule that includes the next season of Game of Thrones. And the past two years have seen the stars, Benedict Cumberbatch (Holmes) and Martin Freeman (Watson), skyrocket to fame. Cumberbatch has been in a dozen productions, including some of 2013’s highest profile films: The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, August: Osage County and the latest Star Trek. Freeman has appeared in nine, including the latest Hobbit film, in which he plays Bilbo Baggins while Cumberbatch voices the dragon Smaug. Both are on back-to-back shoots and publicity tours.
Yet neither actor hesitated when it came to the BBC-Masterpiece co-production, explains Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the PBS show, even though it meant a cut in pay from their feature roles. “They have an absolute ball doing it. It’s a complete bro-mance on screen,” she says. It helps that this isn’t a typical series, but what Moffat calls “luxuriously made, high-budget, incredibly polished television”—and, with its three 90-minute episodes, more akin to movies than TV. “It’s not strictly a procedural, it’s not really a character drama, it’s definitely not a soap opera. It’s funny but has incredibly high dramatic stakes. It’s ostensibly about these two guys and their weird friendship, but has an endearing ensemble of supporting characters,” explains Sarah Marrs, Chicago-based creator of the Cinesnark blog. “You don’t have to be apologetic about being in Sherlock, there’s nothing else like it.”
For Ellis Cashmore, author of Celebrity Culture, the main reason is more prosaic. “Before Sherlock, Cumberbatch was barely recognizable, and Freeman was known as the geeky character in the original version of The Office,” he notes. Since Sherlock’s status as a cult hit exploded around the world, their gigs have gotten dramatically bigger and better. “I bet both actors would work on it for free—it generates more exposure,” he says. (Thanks to the series, sales of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories have shot up too, the Telegraph reports.)
A big part of the attraction for actors and viewers alike are the crisp, humorous scripts—Moffat and Gatiss write an episode each—with Cumberbatch delivering such lightning-quick, stream-of-consciousness dialogue. “Holmes is smarter than all of us,” Eaton says. “We are Watson, falling a couple of steps behind him, trying to figure it out.”
What’s on the pages is totally secret. Aside from confirming which Doyle stories are used this season, Moffat fiercely guards the plots. “Why would you need a hint? Just because you’ve been waiting for two years doesn’t hand you any credit.” The seven-minute teaser released late in December whetted appetites without divulging anything, except that Anderson, the Holmes-loathing forensic technician, lost his job over his obsession with the theory that Holmes is alive. “It’s not us being mean-spirited and nasty,” Moffat says. “It’s us trying to tell the story in the right order, which means you start it knowing nothing and you end knowing everything.”
The new shows can’t come soon enough for Eaton. Ever since she read the scripts six months ago, she’s been plied with alcohol and even been woken up to be interrogated about Holmes’s resurrection. In any case she knows the pressures will return in a year or two—the fourth season of Sherlock is in the works, schedules permitting of course.