The worst thing about Sherlock (* * * * out of four, PBS, Sunday, 9 p.m.) is that his adventures are too few and far between.
It's been a year and a half since the first three installments of this fabulous British update of the Sherlock Holmes stories aired here. And now that it's back, we're only getting three more, starting Sunday with A Scandal in Belgravia and moving on to The Hounds of Baskerville (and yes, the twist in the title is deliberate) and The Reichenbach Fall.
As viewers, we take what we can get. And what we're getting from co-creators Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss is a ceaselessly clever, grandly entertaining reimagining of Arthur Conan Doyle's stories that respects their essence while clearing away any lingering fustiness and adding razor-sharp wit and unexpected warmth and depth.
That warming touch comes from the show's take on the relationship between Sherlock and Doctor Watson — played, in two of the best performances you'll find anywhere this season, by Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. The limits of the friendship are undefined (Watson constantly bristles that people think they're gay, one of the few times such a running joke avoids growing stale), but what's clear is Sherlock has grown to count on Watson as a friend, and that Watson has begun to see through some of Sherlock's ego-driven bluster.
Not that it's any easier to be friends with Sherlock in these three films than it was in the first. As so amusingly played by Cumberbatch, who has imbued his character with a singeing intelligence and an offbeat sexual allure, Sherlock is a constant source of insulting ill-timed truths, a showoff who just can't help himself. It's no wonder Freeman's equally amusing Watson tells him "I always hear 'punch me in the face' when you're speaking" — the wonder is that Freeman also makes Watson's bond with Sherlock perfectly believable.
The novelty in their byplay spills over into each of the adventures — from the first, in which a gorgeous dominatrix (Lara Pulver) challenges Sherlock's solitude, to the last, where his battle with Moriarty (a humorously chilling turn by Andrew Scott) tests Sherlock's bonds to Watson and Mrs. Hudson (an adorable Una Stubbs).
Those who have read the stories will know, in general, where the episodes are going (though even they may have a bit of trouble at times following the slightly overly fussy Belgravia), but Moffat and Gatiss have enough tricks up their sleeves to keep even the most devoted Holmes fan off balance.
This is TV pleasure at its most intense, without even a shade of guilt. I only hope we don't have to wait as long for the next installments.
I also know I'll wait as long as it takes.