Why it’s daunting: Watching the complete works of Steven Moffat wouldn’t be that difficult. Moffat’s responsible for a surprising number of British TV series, but few lasted long, and his contributions to other shows were also quite brief. One the one hand, he created and wrote four seasons of Coupling; on the other, there are only 28 episodes in those seasons.
No, the biggest problem with diving headfirst into Moffat’s work is availability. But in the age of Internet streaming video, that’s changing. Many of his most significant works are available on Netflix Instant, and the few that haven’t made their way to the United States are available on YouTube, if you don’t mind clicking around looking for links and video continuations.
But why should you?
Here’s why: Though occasionally a little too in love with his own trickery, Moffat is the most consistently excellent television writer alive. He’s fond of constructing stories with strong central characters and lots and lots of complicated plotting. The best Moffat scripts toss 50 balls in the air at the start of the juggling act, then catch every single one at the same time, in as many improbable ways as possible. That Moffat has such a high success rate is remarkable; that he’s able to do this and tell stories about recognizably human characters is even more so. With the second season of his Sherlock Holmes update Sherlock debuting Sunday on PBS, it’s the perfect time to try out Moffat in both of his moods: elaborate puzzle-box constructor and intricate dissector of relationships as they begin, and as they fall apart.
Possible gateway: Sherlock, “A Study In Pink”
Why: It’s not easy to come up with new ways to tell Sherlock Holmes stories. The character has been popular for more than a century, and slapping his name on something usually means at least some people will see it. Yet there’s almost no way to do anything new with the character, who remains stodgily stuck in the late 19th century and defined by a hidebound conception as a quick-witted older gentleman who’s little more than a grown-up Encyclopedia Brown.
Moffat’s revitalization of the setup isn’t perfect—indeed, some episodes teeter on the edge of being outright bad—but the series’ finest hours, like its first episode, “A Study In Pink,” show off Moffat’s gift for intricate, intelligent puzzlers. Moffat’s considerable gifts start with character, and he’s turned Holmes into a terrific one: a man who seems on the edge of a sociopathic break and revels in the crime-ridden world he lives in because he gets to solve those crimes. Star Benedict Cumberbatch repeatedly proves himself the perfect actor to deliver Moffat’s twisty, clever dialogue, and Martin Freeman offers up a solid take on Watson.
But the real fun comes from watching Moffat struggle with how to drag Holmes into the 21st century. Technology rears its head here and there—text messages pop up directly on screen—but for the most part, Moffat spends his time showing just how enthralling and whip-smart Arthur Conan Doyle’s plotting still is, offering only minimal updates. Moffat offers just the right amount of reverence and doesn’t mess with the source material too much… before taking the entire setup and making it his own thing.
Next steps: It’s tempting to suggest Moffat newbies dive straight into his Doctor Who work, which has made his name famous to the right subset of fandom over the years. But before his name became synonymous with clever, twisty, puzzle-box thrillers and science-fiction tales, Moffat was known for his clever, twisty, puzzle-box romantic comedies. To get a taste of Moffat’s more “conventional” sitcom work, start with the often brilliant Joking Apart, which only occasionally bites off more than it can chew in its ambitious attempts to tell the full story of both a marriage and the way it falls apart, utilizing clever humor and dual timelines (at least in the series’ first season). Based on the break-up of Moffat’s first marriage, the series is filled with both humor and genuine pathos, to the point where it can be hard to watch at times.
From there, move on to the series that made Moffat’s name in the United Kingdom, Coupling, which was by far the most successful of the many attempts to clone Friends. Coupling is the brighter, more consciously accessible romantic comedy when compared to Joking Apart, yet it’s still filled with complicated plotting, twisty storytelling, and lots of gimmicks designed to turn a fairly standard story of friends pairing off and falling in love into something more like a time-travel thriller. (The series was a huge influence on How I Met Your Mother in particular.)
Moffat’s become best known for his work on Russell T. Davies’ reboot of Doctor Who, for which he contributed at least one script per season before taking over after Davies left the program. Each of his episodes from the Davies years is well worth checking out, as they all combine Moffat’s genius for blending complicated time-travel puzzles with a massive dose of warmth. “The Girl In The Fireplace,” in which the Doctor and his traveling companions end up in a spaceship with a strange connection to Revolutionary-era France, offers Moffat a chance to tell a surprisingly convincing and complete love story in well under an hour. The strikingly different “Blink” is both terrifying and features a brain-bendingly complex set of time-travel machinations, all anchored by a strong performance from Carey Mulligan.
The two seasons of Who for which Moffat has served as showrunner have been less consistent than his earlier work for the show, a natural offshoot of becoming the boss after having been a hired hand. In particular, these seasons display the most consistent problem in Moffat’s filmography: female characters who are too often reduced to damsels in distress. At the same time, both seasons are well worth watching, densely and intricately plotted and filled with standout episodes, especially the ones Moffat scripts, like “A Good Man Goes To War.”
After working through Moffat’s Who work, there’s little left to check out, but make sure not to miss the mesmerizing miniseries Jekyll, which is Moffat’s take on another famous 19th-century pulp tale with a riveting performance (this time from James Nesbitt) at the center.
Where not to start: Moffat wrote one script for the U.S. Coupling remake, but the show itself was a colossal bomb, attempting to Americanize the original and failing at almost every turn. In addition, Moffat’s first big success, Press Gang, is a series aimed at kids. While it’s not bad by any means, there’s less there for adults than might be expected.