Kirk and Spock. Crockett and Tubbs. Sam and Dean. TV has had a long love affair with bromantic crime-stopping buddies. Some choose to see a love that dares not speak its name in these homosocial heroes. We joke about it, write steamy fanfic about it, and, if we're Sherlock, make three 90-minute movies about it. Season 3 is keenly aware of its place in the pop firmament our fandom for master detective Sherlock Holmes and partner John Watson, and for the chemistry between stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and unabashedly writes to it. The result is a blast, but at a worrisome price.
The wink-wink began with an effective premiere, ''The Empty Hearse,'' which acknowledged our theories about how Sherlock survived his suicide fall in season 2, and reframed Sherlock as a zeitgeist hero part Bond, part dark-knight detective. It also established a narrative that plays and satisfies like a rom-com, in which the evolution of the renewed ''Johnlock'' relationship is mirrored by John's romance with Mary (Amanda Abbington), a surprisingly welcome addition to the mix. Jumping past the initial meet-cute and courtship, ''The Sign of Three'' gives us the John-Mary wedding and an epic toast from Holmes to Watson that is nothing less than a declaration of till-death commitment and love. The honeymoon-is-over capper, ''His Last Vow,'' tests both unions with a deliciously loathsome rogue: Charles Augustus Magnussen (Lars Mikkelsen), the incarnation of England's phone-hacking scandals and the poisons that threaten relational bliss secrets, selfishness, power games. When he flicks Watson's face, over and over, it's the coldest cruelty you'll see on TV this winter.
While each episode of Sherlock is as intricate and stylized as ever, the Johnlock emphasis makes this season feel more like a singular saga than three separate puzzle-plot mysteries. But Sherlock is still all about Sherlock, and it knows we're here to watch Cumberbatch do his quick-thinking, semi-sociopathic scene chewing. Watson still seems like an underdeveloped sidekick, not a fully fleshed-out equal partner. Hence, a climax that makes a profound statement about Watson as an individual feels forced; he's meaningless when not defined by Holmes. This is no knock on Freeman, but I can't tell whether he's exasperated by the part or playing it perfectly.
Equally worrisome is this reborn Sherlock, who is more human and superhuman than ever before. By season's end, Holmes' brother, Mycroft (Mark Gatiss), and Watson liken him to a terrifying, elemental ''east wind.'' What's next throwing skyscrapers at despots? Season 3 indulges our romance with Sherlock to fun effect, but I suspect our love will last longer if the show grounds its hero more...and gives his other half a better chance to shine. B