Warning: Spoilers ahead about the new season of Sherlock! If you're being diligent and waiting to watch it on PBS, stop reading now.
If you've been around me the past few months, you know that Sherlock's return has occupied a lot of my obsessive brain. Yes, I am a complete fangirl about Mr. Holmes-Cumberbatch, so I watched the first two seasons multiple times to prepare for season 3 (and my friend Vanessa and I are probably also responsible for the full view count of this rapturous video, made by a very talented fan).
Watching Sherlock feels to me like I'm 12 again and have just been to a Backstreet Boys concert - I'm energized and frenzied, yearning after the unattainable and god-like, but also melancholy that it's not possible to recreate the enthrallment of seeing it for the first time. Go ahead and roll your eyes, because I'm not ashamed of my past and present obsessions.
From the way that Sherlock buzzes about in the media, it seems as though many other fangirls and boys share my feelings. Not knowing how Sherlock fakes his death kept the interwebs a-puzzle for two whole years leading up to this past New Year's Day episode. When creators Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat gave us not one but three plausible scenarios, the third of which is revealed most likely to be the truth, it's clear that they are indulging the fans in a way that toys with and comments on two overlapping things: the immediacy of social media and the dedication of hyperfans.
This episode, "The Empty Hearse," generated 8,000 tweets at its peak, according to SecondSync. If you weren't watching it live, good luck if you were seeing it trend on Twitter; spoilers by the minute popped up like teenage acne. For example, in the graph above, the blip at 21:30 was most likely due to the Moriarty/Sherlock almost-kiss in scenario #2. This scenario, because of its complete ridiculousness, and because the hashtag trend #sherlocklives makes an appearance right afterwards, is a cheeky nod towards die-hard fans of the fiction; in other words, it's meta-fiction at its most social-media-driven.
The second episode was a little less "social" by about 100,000 tweets, but the story itself nevertheless seemed to have its fans at its core. What we got in "The Sign of Three" was romantic in tone, whimsical in plot, and emotional in character study. With the characteristic crime framework taking a backseat to Watson's wedding, Gatiss and Moffat were pushing the scope of Sherlock in terms of genre by centering the episode on Sherlock's inner complexities and his relationship to Watson. This is what fans (and memes) love about Sherlock and Watson, which the writers have recognized and hence capitalized on, all the while pushing us to reconsider what we expect from the series in terms of story.
So how much of series 3 feels forced into existence by hyperfans? Some, I'd say, but luckily the people behind Sherlock are clever enough to run with the new landscape that is TV-watching these days. I'll call them the 4 S's: second screen, streaming, social. To keep viewers engaged, television has to offer simultaneous engagement on laptops and phones, be versatile enough for people to watch when they want, and appeal to social media by promoting trend-able stories. In a sense, then, it has to be both immediate and prolonged. Sort of an oxymoron, no? Lots of shows achieve the flash-in-the-pan trend status but can't keep the momentum going (The Blacklist on NBC, anyone?). And of course there's little direct correlation between the quality of a show and its corresponding twitter activity (sometimes it's an inverse correlation!).
But in the end, I think the key to success for social TV is as simple as this: keep telling a good story and you'll have your audience. Mad Men, Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, and Homeland are just a few others that have theirs.
Now, if you don't mind me, I'll go watch more #BenedictCumberbatch videos in preparation for the finale this Sunday.