Tuned In: 'Sherlock' is back on PBS

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PASADENA, Calif. -- Oh, Sherlock, how we've missed your wit.

It's been almost two years since Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) appeared to jump from a rooftop to his death in the PBS "Masterpiece Mystery!" series "Sherlock" and viewers have been clamoring for more ever since.

With busy film schedules for Mr. Cumberbatch ("Star Trek Into Darkness") and co-star Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit"), who plays John Watson, it took longer than usual to make another batch of three 90-minute episodes.

Sunday's premiere, airing at 10 p.m. on WQED-TV, picks up two years after the events in the last original episode. And clearly it is not a spoiler to say that -- duh! -- Sherlock lives.

Titled "The Empty Hearse," different characters offer multiple theories of how Holmes survived his fall. Some are quite cheeky and seem to be inspired by obsessive fan fiction, a clever tweaking of the show's devotees. Near the end of the episode, Sherlock unravels the details of what really happened.

The episode walks viewers through what Watson has been up to, what Sherlock has been doing in the interim and the reactions of assorted characters to the revelation that Holmes is indeed alive. And friendships rekindle, along with familiar habits of poking fun.

"What life?" Sherlock says to an old friend who protests that he's moved on. "I've been away."

It's an entertaining episode that doesn't fall into the pacing trap so often seen in "Sherlock" where there's not enough story to hold the show up through its 90-minute running time. (Episode two fares worse in this regard, although it's still an entertaining outing.)

What's most notable about the first two episodes of the season that PBS made available for review is how much more emphasis there is on the show's established characters and their relationships. It's understandable in the first episode given all the mopping up from the previous season's finale, but it's a pleasant surprise in episode two that the writers choose a setting that allows the opportunity to involve the show's growing roster of regulars and new mystery plots.

That should be music to the ears of the growing legion of sometimes freakishly devoted "Sherlock" fans. After a press conference for his upcoming FX series "Fargo," "Sherlock" co-star Martin Freeman said "Sherlock" fans are more passionate than "The Hobbit" fans.

Season three of "Sherlock" will be on DVD and Blu-ray on Feb. 11.

NSA and 'Interest'

CBS's "Person of Interest" (10 p.m. Tuesday, KDKA-TV) posits a world where a secret machine can predict events before they happen. It all sounded kind of unbelievable when the show premiered three-and-a-half years ago, but after the NSA revelations in 2013, "Person of Interest" almost seems prescient.

For the show's producers, Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman, the NSA scandal has been a great promotional gift.

"We remember being at TCA a couple years ago, and we did receive a few comments to the effect that the show was farfetched, that it was a little fantastical," Mr. Nolan said. "And so we gloated for about five minutes, and then, of course, we're panicked and horrified by our nation's descent into an Orwellian nightmare. But it's just been fantastic marketing all year long giving us that third season boost."

Mr. Nolan said the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden also prompted producers to consider what it means for the show as they push the story forward.

"It has been somewhat horrifying and has propelled us to try to figure out, you know, what's going to happen two years from now," he said. "So if you want to know what happens two years from now, stay tuned for the second half of our show."

As for the decision to kill off the character of Joss Carter (Taraji P. Henson), CBS Entertainment president Nina Tassler said, "I almost killed myself," when Nolan proposed killing off Carter last year.

"And we talk about how things change. Years ago, you would never, ever kill a major character. And the rule was if it ain't broken, don't fix it," Ms. Tassler said. "But Jonathan, to his credit, came in and said, 'Look, I love my cast. Taraji is an extraordinary actress. But sort of the role that she plays in terms of the relationship between Reese and Finch has changed.' And he said something so clever. He said, 'I need my Catwoman.' He said, 'I need to bring Catwoman into the mix of this relationship between these two guys.' And he talked about the Shaw character. He talked about the Shaw character and we all got very excited. And for those of you who watch 'Person of Interest,' I mean, this show is so much a part of pop culture and obviously very much in the zeitgeist. We take everything these guys say quite seriously. And they mapped out a plan for the Carter character introducing the Shaw character."

The CW's plans

Mark Pedowitz, president of The CW, voiced support for freshman drama series "Reign" (9 p.m. Thursday, WPCW), saying, "I'm very bullish on 'Reign.' ... The numbers for "Reign," which started a little slowly, are increasing, and it's now bettering what last year's predecessor did, which was 'Beauty and the Beast.' I'm looking forward to it returning."

Mr. Pedowitz also indicated "The Originals" and "Supernatural" will likely return.

He was more circumspect in his responses about "Beauty and the Beast," "Hart of Dixie" and "The Carrie Diaries," essentially saying "we'll see come May" about decisions on future seasons.

Mr. Pedowitz announced plans for some sort of "Veronica Mars" spinoff, digital series on CWSeed.com. Details were sketchy on a plot or concept but "Veronica Mars" creator Rob Thomas will be involved. (He later told HitFix.com that the show will "be about [actor] Ryan Hansen, or at least a version of Ryan Hansen, deciding to capitalize on the current 'Veronica Mars' heat to get his own series on the air.")

The CW also announced its acquisition of "Labyrinth," a four-hour event series starring Jessica Brown-Findlay (the late Lady Sybil on "Downton Abbey") and Tom Felton ("Harry Potter"). The miniseries jumps back and forth in time between modern and medieval France as it follows two women searching for the Holy Grail.

WQED reaches goal

In October, WQED announced that if 2,014 switched to or signed up to become sustaining members -- making automatic, monthly donations to the PBS station -- "WQED will eliminate on air fundraising during 'Masterpiece Classic,' including the fourth season of PBS's acclaimed hit 'Downton Abbey' scheduled to premiere Jan. 5, 2014, and cancel the first fundraising drive for Classical WQED-FM 89.3 slated for Feb. 5-14, 2014."

At the time, I found that promise, particularly invoking the spectre of a pledge campaign during "Downton Abbey," disingenuous because I couldn't remember a time when WQED had pledged during an original episode of "Masterpiece."

Indeed, there have often been questions about why PBS stations don't pledge around regular popular shows like "Masterpiece," and the answer has always been that it doesn't generate as much money as so-called "pledge programming" (doo-wop, Suze Orman, etc.).

So when WQED announced it exceeded its goal -- 2,180 sustainers as of earlier this week -- I had to ask when the last time was that WQED pledged during "Masterpiece." WQED offered up a few examples -- all pre-emptions of "Masterpiece" reruns -- including March 3 and 10, 2013.

"During designated pledge periods, PBS feeds repeats of Masterpiece programs," explained WQED spokesman George Hazimanolis. "Stations have the option to air those repeats or to air pledge programming. In the past, we have aired pledge programming. We want to air 'Masterpiece' during those times, and that was part of the challenge to viewers who made that possible by becoming sustaining members."

WQED plans to air "Mr. Selfridge" repeats in the 9 p.m. Sunday time slot in March after the conclusion of the fourth season of "Downton Abbey."

"The goal with this campaign is to increase long-term support for WQED to carry out its mission," Mr. Hazimanolis continued, "and to give viewers a dedicated slot for British drama on Sunday nights, which we will now be doing."

And that's great. But despite WQED invoking the "Downton" title in its attempt to woo/scare donors, the show's new episodes were never really in jeopardy of being usurped by a pledge campaign.

Channel surfing

Showtime's "Nurse Jackie" and "Californication" return April 13 along with the climate change docuseries "Years of Living Dangerously." ... Showtime debuts the new gothic horror drama "Penny Dreadful" on May 11. ... In the next season of Showtime's "Homeland" viewers will see CIA operative Carrie (Claire Danes) doing her job in the field, likely in a foreign capital.

A portion of this column originally appeared online in the Tuned In Journal blog. Post-Gazette TV writer Rob Owen is attending the Television Critics Association winter press tour. TV writer Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook for breaking TV news.

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