Last year, while visiting my parents from out of town, I commandeered the television one evening to watch the premiere of Sherlock, season (or, as the British would have it, series) 3. Back home, my DVR was set to record the show, but I wasn’t taking any chances or even allowing the possibility that I might be spoiled on the episode before I returned to Alaska; I would watch the premiere live now, then watch it again back home—and again, and again, and, if my relationship with previous episodes of Sherlock was any indication, again.
Sherlock series 3 came with a lot of hype. Series 2 had ended two years prior, with the standard (but all too short) three-episode season ending in a cliffhanger. Some characters were dead, some only appeared to be dead, the lives of others had been presumably altered forever. Between January 2012 and January 2014, fans had plenty of time to speculate about what had happened, and what would happen, when (and if) we ever got a series 3.
In the meantime, fans lost their minds. They made fan art, fan fiction, Sherlock memes, slash fic that imagined Martin Freeman’s Watson and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock as lovers. Fans created unofficial show tee shirts, pillows, bumper stickers—hell, I even had a Sherlock-themed iPhone case. Mr. Cinnamon Toastencrunch blew up, too, becoming the object of a million fangirl (and fanboy) crushes, earning the nickname “The Internet’s Boyfriend,” and prompting gifs, tumblrs, a name generator (“Blubberbutt Frumblesnatch,” “Bandicoot Countryside”), and my favorite Extra Hot Great mini.
What I’m saying is: Anticipation was high when Sherlock finally premiered, and I counted myself among those who’d been counting the days. But by the time episode one’s 90-minutes had rolled by, I felt distinctly let down.
“The Empty Hearse” opens with an explanation of how Sherlock survived his series 2-ending plummet off a building after the death of Moriarty—a pre-arranged scheme involving a bungee cord, a hypnotist, a Mission Impossible-style rubber mask, and a first-and-final smooch with Molly. This plan’s emotional manipulation of Watson (who was devastated at Sherlock’s death and whose life was irrevocably altered as a result) is tough to take—but we’ve seen before that Sherlock is more than capable of heartless emotional manipulation (or just ignoring other people’s emotions altogether).
But then! “Bollocks!” scoffs Lestrade in a voiceover. Because, you see, what we just witnessed wasn’t an explanation at all but a theory—one cooked up by good old Anderson, he whose mere presence at a crime scene makes the IQ of an entire city street drop. More theories follow, one of which is presented by a member of an actual Sherlock fan club, which is a thing that now exists in the world of Sherlock. “I don’t care how you faked it, Sherlock. I want to know why,” John Watson tells Sherlock about the faked death, and the line smacks of dismissal—the show’s writers themselves can’t think of a how, so they dazzle the audience with a few magic tricks then cluck disapprovingly when we want to know how they work.
The fake-out explanations weren’t what had me feeling disgruntled, though, not on their own. The episode continues with Sherlock donning a French waiter disguise to surprise John with news of his undead-ness, at which point John attacks him. There are insults for Watson’s silly moustache; yet another woman (John’s fiancée, Mary, this time) who “can’t help but enjoy the sociopathic little scamp,” as the AV Club recap of the episode puts it; obsession with Sherlock’s signature coat; and a wink-wink-nudge-nudge joke about putting Sherlock-related declarations on a tee shirt.
“[Show creator Steven] Moffat has a very direct and sometimes antagonistic relationship with his shows’ fans, whose attention he seems to equally crave and hold in contempt,” that same AV Club recap describes. Watching the series 3 premiere of Sherlock, I felt that connection almost tangibly. Moffat seemed to be holding his viewers by the hand, practically cackling as he gave us what he thought we wanted. Like the high school wannabe, longing to fit in with the kids who are, like, totally into Swedish death metal, Moffat betrayed a sort of me-too-guys-I-get-it-too! desperation to be seen as in-the-know when it comes to fandom. At the same time, the neglect he gave many of the emotional beats of the episode (well described in that AV Club piece) made the fan-service parts of the show feel shallow, like half-hearted attempts to identify with why loyal viewers bothered to watch the show. Moffat seemed to understand that his viewers liked Sherlock tee shirts and slash fic, but he didn’t seem to get why.
Cut to two years later, and I’m watching the first episodes of the final season of Parks and Recreation. This last season is set three years after the conclusion of season 6, in 2017—the year that also happens to be the season premiere episode’s title. Things have changed in Pawnee, Indiana, most notably the relationship between Leslie Knope and her one-time foil-slash-mentor Ron Swanson. But plenty of other things have either stayed the same—or settled ever more firmly into their goofy grooves.
Lots of final seasons indulge in call-backs to fan favorites. Beloved guest stars return, familiar characters turn up for a last victory lap, old jokes are revived. Now halfway through its final season, P&R is no different. The first episode alone had Megan Mullally back for one last appearance as Ron’s nemesis/ex-wife, Tammy, and an appearance by former talk show host Joan Callamezzo. Later episodes bring back Perd Hapley, the Jerry-Gary-Larry-Terry joke, Ron’s beloved claymore landmine, familiar locale JJ’s Diner, and a nameless janitor who, years after his first appearance in season 3, episode 16 (“Lil’ Sebastian”), is still dancing his way through City Hall to Shania Twain’s “Man! I Feel Like a Woman.”
This all smacks of fan service, just as much as Sherlock’s shout-outs to tee shirt slogans do. After all, who else is going to appreciate these call-backs? Why would the writers include these references, if not to get a grin of recognition out of the audience? Yet when P&R shows Donna and Tom indulging in a Treat Yo’Self day (a call back to season 4, episode 4, “Pawnee Rangers”), I wasn’t put off; instead, I found myself laughing, delighted to find that the two friends still practiced their indulgent ritual and happy to see the writers pay homage to this detail.
So, what’s the difference? Why is obvious fan service okay in one circumstance and not in the other?
World-building can be a delicate thing, especially as a show is just beginning. You have a core of main characters you want to introduce and a specific locale they’ll likely spend most of their time in, and you have to convey all that to your audience in a limited amount of time—say, half an hour once a week, or ninety minutes just three times a year. If you’re talented and lucky, you accomplish that, and then you can start building out from there. You get beyond the walls of the Parks and Recreation Department offices and outside the door of 221B Baker Street. You introduce Jean Ralphio and the Douche, Mrs. Hudson and Sally Donovan. You get a sense of the streets the characters roam, the restaurants they frequent. The crime scenes they investigate.
The writers of P&R have built Pawnee, Indiana, into a familiar place (even if it is populated with soda-swilling goofballs who collect celebrity pig dolls and demand that Twilight be included in the town time capsule). Seven seasons have given them room to explore the entire town, not to mention the city next door (boo, Eagleton!), and the citizens that populate both. Over those seven seasons, the writers have created a rich history that’s based on its characters’ decisions and desires, their crimes and circumstances, their feuds, relationships, setbacks, and triumphs. And after all this time spent in Pawnee, as viewers, we understand the importance of every town icon—not just as a source of entertainment for us, but as something meaningful to the characters we’ve grown to love.
So when someone trots out a Lil’ Sebastian reference, we get why every single Pawneean sheds a tear—and we also completely understand Ben’s utter bewilderment. When Craig mentions his therapist, Dr. Richard Nygaard, we’re happy to hear the good doctor is still helping the people of Pawnee with their emotional problems. These shout-outs are rooted in the history of a town—okay, a fictional town. But the beauty of a fictional town is that you don’t have to move there to feel like you’re one of its citizens. Everyone of us who tunes in to P&R is a part of Pawnee.
Which is why, I think, the fan pandering of P&R succeeds where Sherlock’s fails. P&R looks to itself for its jokes and references, while Sherlock looks beyond the fictional London where its characters live and work to the outside world—the real world. P&R’s callbacks to The Pit, Snakejuice, and Galentine’s Day reward its viewers’ memories, while Sherlock’s depiction of Sherlock fan club members speculating wildly over Holmes’s faked death plays on fans’ knowledge of something outside the show.
P&R’s references invite you into the world of the show. Sherlock’s, meanwhile, leave the show’s world—the place fans presumably want to be—to reference things its fans created. It’s the difference between knowing a joke because you’ve been in on it from the beginning and making a similar joke in hopes that you can seem like you’re in on it, too.
And it betrays a fundamental understanding of why fans like a particular show—and why they create art and GIFs and tee shirts based on the characters they love. We watch to be transported. Just as immersing ourselves in a great book can take us to a time or place we’d probably never encounter firsthand, watching a television show with a richly imagined world populated by complex characters transports us in the same way. And when the show ends—when the season or even the series is over—we long to be transported, still. We use our own imaginations to extend the story; we make art or write fanfic that pays homage to the place we long to be and the people we miss.
I won’t stop watching Sherlock. It managed to course-correct with series 3’s next two episodes, and I still have high hopes for series 4. Meanwhile, P&R is taking its final victory lap, and if this review is any indication (I haven’t seen the most recent episodes yet), it’s still hitting just the right notes when it comes to fan service.