Three episodes are never enough to satisfy our appetite for the dazzling BBC/Masterpiece Mystery! version of Sherlock, which thanks to its stars' busy movie careers, made us wait two long years for the latest trilogy of 90-minute delights. Was it worth the wait? The answer is (to borrow the title of TV's other enjoyable contemporary Holmes series) elementary: Did you ever doubt it?
"You love it, being Sherlock Holmes," reaffirms the long-suffering Dr. John Watson (the delightful Martin Freeman) to his exasperating mate (an electrifying Benedict Cumberbatch), who returns to the spotlight in Sunday's playfully devious PBS premiere, "The Empty Hearse" (check tvguide.com listings) — picking up two years after the sleuth spectacularly faked his death in his face-off with Moriarty. Of course, we also love Sherlock being Sherlock, even when he makes it difficult to return the affection.
Both Sherlock and CBS's Elementary revel in Holmes's egotism and melancholy prickliness, but Cumberbatch brings a more classically theatrical verve to the role, eyes flashing as he sneers at the boring mortals who are like gnats in his dashing wake. This demanding dandy should be the one flashing the colorful socks that are a staple of Jonny Lee Miller's Elementary wardrobe.
As the new Sherlock season posits wild theories of how and why Holmes staged his death and resurrection, we once again find ourselves in the master detective's mind's eye — an exhilarating place to be, even when in next week's installment, he's on a drunken bachelor-party bender and his observations blur hilariously: "Nurse? Client? Cardigan? Victim?" In that same cunning "The Sign of Three" episode (Jan. 26), the homo-harmonics of the Holmes-Watson relationship, which has so many observers assuming they're gay, are challenged when Watson takes a bride (feisty Amanda Abbington) of whom Holmes grudgingly approves. His remarkable wedding toast to Watson in that episode is as much insult as tribute, but concludes with him movingly conceding, "I am a ridiculous man, redeemed only by the warmth and constancy of your friendship."
(Not unlike when the Holmes of Elementary recently rejected his brother Mycroft's bid to return to London by demurring: "I feel as I have thrived here, not because of who I am but because of who I have come to know.") I think I like these modern, more human Sherlocks. PBS apparently does as well, and with these three brilliant new chapters airing alongside the hit Downton Abbey, this double-barreled blast of British entertainment makes PBS a force to be reckoned with on Sundays. (If you're doing the math, you'll realize PBS has programmed Sherlock's finale, "His Last Vow," opposite the Super Bowl. Which isn't just a DVR alert but a "Too soon!" lament.)
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GUYS: There is sex: gay, graphic, raw, intimate. There is a city: San Francisco and environs. But not unlike Girls, the self-consciously hip comedy with which it is being paired on Sundays, HBO's new half-hour dramedy Looking (10:30/9:30c) is a decidedly and purposefully deglamorized, gay-ghetto not-quite-fabulous anti-Sex and the City slice of life about ordinary gays who aren't quite sure what they're seeking in love and life. Never as heightened or melodramatic as Queer as Folk (British and Showtime versions), Looking also isn't terribly distinctive and is only sporadically engaging.
The charming central player in the ensemble is Jonathan Groff (Glee, Spring Awakening) as Patrick, a Peter Pan-ish video game designer who, at 29, has graduated past the "twink" stage and is awkwardly assimilating to the world of online matchmaking and direct-eye-contact cruising. In the first few episodes, he is rejected for either trying too hard or brushed off midway through foreplay with, "I think we're looking for different things." His best friends have their own issues: Agustin (Frankie J. Alvarez), a 31-year-old frustrated artist, has just agreed to move to Oakland to cohabitate with his boyfriend, but is deeply ambivalent about monogamy and domesticity. The elder statesman of the group, 39-year-old professional waiter Dom (Murray Bartlett, a find), is riddled with midlife regrets over his stalled ambitions to open his own eatery, and tries to buck up his self-confidence with random sexual encounters that reflect his waning glory days.
You can't fault this series for its authenticity and gritty indie-film integrity. But if you're looking for a good or even memorable time, you may need to be very patient. (Things start picking up in the third episode, when Russell Tovey of the original Being Human and The History Boys makes an appearance in Patrick's workplace.)
EWWWW: I'm not quite sure why this needed to be remade, but Lifetime's curiously inert adaptation of V.C. Andrews' twisted Gothic Flowers in the Attic (Saturday, 8/7c) at least gives Ellen Burstyn the opportunity to display her florid take on a classic Nurse Ratched/Baby Jane psycho character. She plays a vindictive granny who keeps her poor grandkids prisoner for years in the cloistered loft of the family manse, while the kids' wayward mom (lifeless Heather Graham, unconvincing in her incoherent mood swings) tries to win back the family inheritance by keeping her offspring a secret from the dying patriarch.
"I make the rules in this house — I DO!!" Burstyn screams, channeling latter-year Bette Davis — "And I execute the punishment," she cackles to the innocent kids whom she perceives as "evil from the moment you were conceived." As the most defiant of the young-uns, Mad Men's Kiernan Shipka pouts effectively, but even she can't sell the part of the story where she's erotically and creepily drawn to her brother (bland Mason Dye) as they go through puberty during their captivity. Escape can't come too soon.
The ick factor is even more gruesomely amplified as Fox's The Following embarks on its second harrowing season, with a Sunday premiere (approx. 10:30/9:30c) getting a big boost from the NFC Championship game before the show moves back to Mondays starting Jan. 27. After a horrifically violent prologue reminding us where we left off in the battle of wills between hapless FBI stooge Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and psychopathic Svengali serial-killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy), we pick up a year later, with Joe presumed dead — it's hardly a spoiler to say, "yeah, right," right? — and a physically if not psychically healed Hardy protesting too much that he's "strictly civilian now."
All of which changes when surviving members of Carroll's murderous fan club (including what appears to be an even sicker batch of new recruits) decide to mark the anniversary of Joe's "death" with a ghastly "resurrection" slaughter that brings Hardy and a few other familiar (and new) faces back into the hunt. One of The Following's most egregious flaws last season was how stupid it often made the good guys look, with Hardy especially foolhardy in the way he pursues leads like a lone wolf. Sorry to say that from the evidence of the season premiere, not a lot has changed. Morbid curiosity may keep me following this bloody cat-and-mouse horror show for a while longer, but not at the risk of murdering what few brain cells I have left.
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