It has been two years, in both real and fictional time, since Sherlock Holmes, as re-conceived by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for the BBC series “Sherlock,” stepped off a roof to fall apparently to his death. The three-adventure third season, with Holmes very much alive (we knew this already, spoiler spotters, and anyway, he’d have to be), begins Sunday on PBS.
Some things have happened in the interim, the most important of them, perhaps, not to the characters but to the actors who play them. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Sherlock — it’s all first names in this modern version, except for Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) — and was the villain in the latest “Star Trek” movie, has become something of an international sex symbol. Martin Freeman, the series’ Doctor Watson, has played Bilbo Baggins in a brace of “Hobbit” movies (in which Cumberbatch played the dragon). “Sherlock” returns to television as an Event.
This return is anticipated within the series itself by a group of Sherlock cultists called the Empty Hearse (also the title of the first episode), to echo “The Adventure of the Empty House,” the story in which Arthur Conan Doyle brought the original Holmes back from the presumed dead — and also to reflect Cumberbatch’s own followers. Its bickering members imagine the ways in which Sherlock cheated death, including a takeoff on fan-written “slash fiction,” in which Holmes and nemesis “Jim” Moriarty nearly kiss.
The series is a comment on Holmes as much as it is an adventure in which he stars. Knowingness is one of the things it wants to share with you.
As to our heroes, Watson — that is, John — has acquired a mustache and a love interest (Amanda Abbington). Sherlock — has not. Soon enough, they are back together again: “Short version: not dead,” Sherlock tells John, just before John head-butts him. And the game is once again, not afoot, but “on.”
Though Holmes’ Baker Street digs remain relatively antique, the London through which he and Watson move is the new city of glass and gadgets, the city of the future it must have seemed in Conan Doyle’s day, and whose “beating heart” is of deeper interest to the master detective than any of the individuals who constitute its population. With its slow and fast motion, its dissolves and double exposures, its focus effects and copious use of superimposed text, it’s like a long electronica video. One virtual dolly shot ends in a close-up of a screaming Mrs. Hudson’s uvula.
Such capital-M Mannerism can be annoying elsewhere, but in “Sherlock” it is so overwhelmingly the method that it ceases to call attention to itself; it is one with its subject matter. Visualizing things that don’t happen alongside things that do, with frequent trips by Holmes into the “mind palace” where his deductive process is given shape and form and voice, this is, really, a structurally radical show.
The play of technique and storytelling, the tension between the cold and the warm — which also describes the title character — has been a hallmark as well of Moffat’s years running “Doctor Who,” a series that is a bit of a twin to “Sherlock.” The alien Doctor is something of a Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock Holmes is something of an alien. This is played often for laughs, in the series’ funniest, and goofiest, year yet.
Though there are crimes to solve and disasters to avert and interwoven strands of narrative to untangle, the new season also has much to do with Holmes the person. We learn more of his past, which is not to say that he is in any sense explained. Having reunited with Watson under altered terms, the elements of their asymmetrical bromance are brought to the fore, with Holmes making more of an effort to at least act human.
“I don’t understand — I said I’m sorry,” he says after the aforementioned head-butt. “Isn’t that what you’re supposed to do?”
Of course, part of what makes the character attractive is that, although some innate moral sense keeps him on the side of right, he possesses many qualities we more often associate with villains. Haughty and cool and willing to exploit others where his plans require it, he refers to himself as a “high-functioning sociopath,” and, in an almost sentimental moment, admits that he is “dismissive of the virtuous, unaware of the beautiful and uncomprehending in the face of the happy.”
He does not consider this a fault, exactly.
‘Masterpiece Mystery! Sherlock: The Empty Hearse’
When: 9:58 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)