Life has been busy for the stars of “Sherlock” since the series premiered in 2010, with Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss applying new London style and contemporary quirks to Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous consulting detective. Its fourth season — there have been breaks — begins Sunday on PBS’ “Masterpiece: Mystery!”
Martin Freeman, the series’ Dr. John Watson, has gone from a guy you might have seen on the British version of “The Office” or in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” to playing Bilbo Baggins in three “Hobbit” movies and the hapless Lester Nygaard in the first season of FX’s “Fargo,” and hosting “Saturday Night Live."
Benedict Cumberbatch, its Sherlock (also in the “Hobbit” movies, as the voice of Smaug) has, among other things, played Khan in “Star Trek Into Darkness,” the title role in “Doctor Strange,” codebreaker Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” and Richard III in BBC’s “The Hollow Crown” Shakespeare cycle; sung “Comfortably Numb” with Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour at the Royal Albert Hall; and has become something of an international, official hot guy.
Conan Doyle wrote 60 Holmes stories, but the world has deemed that insufficient, and many other hands have filled out the tale. Holmes is a useful mix of specific qualities and scant details — an attitude, occupation and method as much as a full-fleshed, full-fledged character, and so familiar that even some characters not called Sherlock Holmes, like Hugh Laurie’s Dr. House on “House,” are recognizably him. The Doctor, on “Doctor Who,” which Moffat currently oversees and for which Gatiss has written, has much in common with him — essentially solitary but in need of a companion, something less than polite, sexy without being sexual.
“Sherlock” selects plot elements and incidental details from the original stories and mixes and mashes them together, adding new ingredients to taste, as when a chef plays modern variations on traditional cuisine without letting what’s new obscure what’s old. “The Six Thatchers,” the first episode of the new season, is partly based on Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” with busts of Britain’s Iron Lady replacing those of France’s Little Corporal. There are references to the original story’s missing “black pearl of the Borgias,” but it is only one of many threads and complications to follow and trip over.
Directed by Rachel Talalay (“Tank Girl”) and written by Gatiss — who also plays Mycroft Holmes — the new episode belatedly picks up on the heels of last January’s “The Abominable Bride,” a Victorian-era dream interlude that in turn picked up on the heels of the third season finale, “His Last Vow,” which premiered two years earlier. To further confound time, “Bride” takes place in the last minutes of “Vow,” as Sherlock, flying off into exile, is recalled to England when the face of the supposedly late Professor Moriarty appears on television screens all over England over the title “Did you miss me?”
Sherlock’s aborted exile followed his killing of a blackmailing newspaper publisher — “I’m not a hero,” he announced, then “I’m a high-functioning sociopath” — and it gives away nothing to say that this problem is quickly dispensed with in Sunday’s episode in order for our heroes to get on with new business, solving a string of cases in montage, while waiting for Moriarty to strike. (“I’m the target,” says Sherlock. “Targets wait.”)
John, meanwhile, who last season wed Mary (Amanda Abbington) — “a retired super-agent with a terrifying skill set,” but also a lovely person — is being worn down by new fatherhood.
“Beck and call of a screaming, demanding baby,” Detective Inspector Lestrade (Rupert Graves), here called Greg, remarks to him. “Must feel very different.” (“You two having a little joke?” asks Sherlock, overhearing. “This is a joke, is it? Is it about me?”)
There is more of a bromance — if an inarticulate, kind of embarrassed one — between the partners than in other versions. Sherlock calls Watson “John,” and Watson calls Holmes “Sherlock,” and that Sherlock might be harboring the semblance of a caring person somewhere in the cold, cool chambers of his mind is something Moffat and Gatiss like to play with, for character and comedy. They enjoy making him squirm — enlisting him last season as John’s best man, for instance, and as a godfather in this one — often with affecting, not quite sentimental results. Their plots can feel complicated and clever to a fault, but they are reliably good with quips and characters.
The advance word from Team Sherlock has been that things will get dark this year, which suggests that they have either forgotten their earlier dark seasons or that we are in for even darker darkness. There is plenty of it in “The Six Thatchers,” to be sure, but there’s also a bloodhound, and babysitting: “You see, but you do not observe,” says the minder to his charge. “You fail to connect actions to their consequences. Now for the last time, if you want to keep the rattle, do not throw the rattle.”
‘Sherlock’ on ‘Masterpiece’
When: 9 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd