Sherlock at TCA: Like the new Coke, it'll be around forever (in some form)

Sherlock at TCA: Like the new Coke, it'll be around forever (in some form)

A small area outside of the venue where TCA is held every January is cordoned off each day. Inside, white folding chairs are set up, and each morning they are populated by men and women—predominantly men—who have cameras, and bags filled with photos and other merchandise. This is not the paparazzi, at least not in the traditional sense—these are the people who attend red carpets and other industry events to collect photos and autographs they can subsequently sell online, and it is their job to sit outside of events like this one.

This morning, the group sitting behind the velvet rope was different. They were predominantly female, younger than usual, holding poster board signs, and with a certain buzz about them. While the usual characters have a sort of detached ambivalence toward the day in question, the crowd outside of PBS’ first day at press tour was milling about, collecting in small groups to eagerly discuss the day ahead. As I walked toward the ballroom, one of them peeked out from behind the rope, as though hopeful that it was someone—a specific someone—they were waiting for.

They were—at least in part—the members of the “SoCal Cumber Collective” according to the sign they had with them, and they were here to see Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch. The idea of fans clambering to gain access to the star of one of their favorite shows at a PBS Press Tour day remains a bit surreal; PBS even slightly increased security outside the ballroom ahead of the panel, more attentive to journalists’ credentials in fear that one of the fans outside would attempt to gain access.

To be clear, this “surreal” feeling has nothing to do with the fans themselves: the Cumber Collective seem like perfectly normal and pleasant individuals, wanting to get closer to the star of their favorite show. This is not a story about how Cumberbatch fans—or fans in general—should inspire panic or ridicule or derision of any kind. However, TCA Press Tour is not traditionally a fan space on a normal day, and it’s certainly never been close to a fan space for PBS. More than even the wildly successful Downton Abbey, Sherlock has taken on a life outside of the Masterpiece brand, and PBS in general. Whereas some outlets typically don’t send reporters to cover PBS’ time at tour, they were out in droves for Sherlock, and you could tell the atmosphere is not something PBS is used to.

Cumberbatch isn’t used to it either. Asked about the fans outside, he remarked that he was a bit unnerved, while simultaneously remarking that he was guilty for having to rush by them on his way into the hotel (he was running late). He ultimately emphasized how much he valued the way people are committed to something he loves, and extended that to everyone who watches the series. For a show that has had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with its fanbase, Cumberbatch was mostly reverent; he still fell into the traps of evaluating fandom (citing that “some of them are normal,” earning a laugh from the audience), but he seems to have taken it on more as a responsibility than a burden, at the end of the day.

That would seem to be PBS’ approach as well. As much as Sherlock presents new challenges for the channel, they’re adapting: narrowing the release window for S3 drew the series’ highest ratings yet, and shows PBS understands the Sherlock audience is more aware of scheduling logics than the audiences for its other series. More than previewing the third season currently airing on PBS, the session—where Cumberbatch was joined by Amanda Abbington (Mary), showrunner Steven Moffat and producer Sue Vertue—was more to acknowledge that Sherlock is at this stage a true phenomenon. During the panel, the producers was asked about the series’ future—they remained coy on when Season Four might air—and Masterpiece producer Rebecca Eaton spoke out to the President of PBS Paula Kerger to ask if she could commit to airing Sherlock for as long as the BBC continues to commission it: Kerger said yes, setting the stage for what could well be a show to run for decades to come.

Its ability to do so will depend on its ability to evolve, which this season comes in the form of Abbington’s Mary (introduced in the first episode of the season). The series’ most prominent female character to date, Mary’s introduction is the season’s biggest accomplishment, and one that Moffat feels worked well. While there are few women in the source material, Moffat wanted to tell Mary’s story, and feels women have the unique ability to see through Sherlock. This makes them dynamic forces in the storytelling—which makes you wonder why they didn’t consider adding them earlier, but Moffat largely ignored my efforts to get him to reflect on criticism of the series’ gender representation—and Moffat sees Mary as a key part of the show moving forward, despite the fact she disappeared after her first appearance in Conan Doyle’s original stories.

Moffat may not have commented on the series’ larger engagement with female characters—including Lara Pulver’s Irene Adler, who Moffat coyly suggested could return should they find the right story—but he did speak to the way Mary avoided many of the pitfalls of introducing new romantic partners into an existing partnership: they feel they channeled Doyle’s character, creating someone who was “up for the adventure” ahead of them and capable of integrating into the series rather than taking away from the characters audiences love most.

Abbington’s casting is one of multiple cases of art imitating life this season: she’s Martin Freeman’s partner in real life, with the role written for her by the showrunners. It mirrors the choice to have Cumberbatch’s parents play Sherlock’s parents in the final episode of the season, all of which reminds us the way Sherlock has very much become a part of these actors’ and producers’ lives. Asked about how Sherlock’s deductions have influenced his daily existence, Cumberbatch told of sitting on the train and checking for smudges on the lapels of those around him, as though being Sherlock Holmes is a way of life (one he shares with many other actors, about whom Cumberbatch spoke with affection, having starred in Frankenstein with Jonny Lee Miller and having recently sat down to chat with Robert Downey Jr.).

One question posed to Cumberbatch was whether he could see himself tiring of this way of life, leading him to step away from the role that he’s become most well-known for. Cumberbatch expressed his full commitment moving forward, noting he is younger than predecessors like Jeremy Brett, and is being asked to do fewer episodes. He even wondered aloud about whether he could play a version of the character late into his life, similar to the one being played by Ian McKellen in Bill Condon’s upcoming A Slight Trick Of The Mind. With ratings momentum on both sides of the ocean and the rising star power of its cast, the idea of Sherlock still airing 25 years from now does not seem entirely outside the realm of possibility, and would certainly make the series’ fans happy.

Of course, as the recent two-year wait for season two would suggest, the ability to keep making Sherlock depends on getting Cumberbatch, Freeman, and the rest of the cast and crew together for long enough to make it happen. Although the BBC is apparently hopeful a fourth series will exist by the end of 2014, Moffat and Vertue were unwilling to comment further, and focused instead on the importance of not burning out the stars involved. Speaking to The A.V. Club following the panel, Vertue emphasized the need for the cast to go onto other projects, to not exclusively “live” Sherlock and being able to explore other opportunities. While she reiterated that they could see this series going on for years to come—not unlike something like Prime Suspect, which ran periodically between 1992 and 2006—she noted that it might not always exist in its same format. Asked whether they would be willing to return for “seasons” of fewer than three episodes, she said it was possible, and that “I would rather do one or two than none.” It imagines a future where Sherlock and Watson—and Mary, Lestrade, Molly, Mrs. Hudson, and whatever other characters may emerge—come back together for another adventure every few years, an event that charts the characters as they grow together, or apart. If the schedule works to tell three episodes—and never more than three episodes, Vertue reiterated—then one expects the producers would make that happen; if the schedule only permits them to come together for a single special, one senses all parties would rather one quick shot of Sherlockian storytelling than wait even longer to return to these characters.

While not the same breakout success in the U.S. as Downton Abbey, Sherlock remains a coup for PBS, bringing in new audiences and teaching them countless lessons about social media (where Cumberbatch’s appearance blew up reporters’ twitter feeds with favorites and retweets throughout the session). In the previous session, Jeremy Piven joked that his show Mr. Selfridge could run for 126 seasons, and he intended to be at TCA for each and every one of them; the audience chuckled, but one imagines the BBC and PBS—and the Cumber Collective outside the hotel—would have been more than happy to have Cumberbatch say the same about Sherlock.

Stray observations:

  • On the subject of logistics, Vertue noted they shot the third season in two parts, with the third episode produced a few months after the first two. So it seems possible that a future Sherlock season could be cobbled together from episodes filmed over the course of a year or two, should the scheduling make that the only option.
  • In what feels to me like the most succinct statement of Steven Moffat’s writing strategy yet, he told the crowd “we do our best to surprise you with a combination of lies and deceit.” I’ll be interested to see everyone return to that comment once the current season comes to a close.
  • “There’s words flying over all of your heads right now”—Cumberbatch, after being asked how playing Sherlock has affected his daily life.
  • Cumberbatch did eventually make it outside to greet the Cumber Collective.

More Newswire