The hit BBC show Sherlock is wildly inconsistent in quality – but with the second episode of Season 4, it hit its highest note yet.
Art imitates life. Or is that the other way around? In any event, I think a massive component of the creepy Sherlock episode The Lying Detective was missed on American audiences, because it drew so much from recent scandal in the United Kingdom.
Based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story The Adventure of the Dying Detective, it embraces two components of the original and just runs wild with them.
Sherlock is in genuine peril this episode.
The first is the character of Culverton Smith – a truly vile, loathsome man played with absolute relish by Toby Jones. In the original story, he was a fairly nondescript man accused of killing his nephew. In typical fashion, writer Mark Gatiss blows him up out of all proportion and creates, onscreen, one of the most chilling and sinister characters I’ve ever seen on television. And the really scary part? He’s based on somebody real.
In Sherlock, Culverton Smith is a massively rich and powerful media tycoon with incredible influence over the country. He’s a uniquely British creation – terrible teeth, gauche fashion sense, and a sneering arrogance that would never pass muster in America. Yet British people embrace that sort of celebrity; and you can see reflections of similar real-life celebs like Chris Evans, Piers Morgan, and Paul O’Grady in his fashion and mannerisms.
In Culverton Smith, actor Toby Jones has created one of the most sinister villains of all time.
But the most obvious parallel is with Jimmy Saville – a near-legendary British DJ and television personality who was absolutely adored across the country… until his legacy of pedophilia came to light years after his death.
In real-life, Jimmy Saville demonstrated that fame and fortune insulated you from consequences – and, as such, he abused children for decades right under the noses of the British Broadcasting Corporation and even Britain’s National Health Service. He was a disgusting sexual predator; and yet because nobody wanted to ‘rock the boat’ there was a systematic cover-up of his crimes that lasted for years even after his death.
In Sherlock, the character of Culverton Smith explores just how that could have happened; by turning this vile, vulgar celebrity into Britain’s most prolific serial killer – one who operated openly, and with virtual impunity.
If it wasn’t for the legacy of Jimmy Saville, you’d think it was a ridiculous plot. How could a man like that commit so many horrific crimes right there, in the public eye? It’s impossible, right?
Culverton Smith was based on the real-life pedophile Jimmy Saville, who abused hundreds of women and girls across four decades; all with absolute impunity.
And yet all of Culverton Smith’s fictional crimes mirror the real-life ones of Jimmy Saville. Even to the point of Culverton’s fascination with the hospital mortuary; where the real-life Jimmy Saville was alleged to have sexually-molested corpses to satisfy his perverted urges.
It’s disquieting, and for British audiences especially, incredibly relevant.
Writer Mark Gatiss (who also plays the inimitable Mycroft Holmes) also does an outstanding job weaving the themes of the original short story into the two-hour episode. I won’t spoil any of what happens, but it’s immensely satisfying and surprised even me. I’m the biggest Sherlock fan in the world – hell, my grandfather’s original copies of The Strand Magazine, lurking in my father’s bookcase, have the original imprint of The Adventure of the Dying Detective within their pages. And yet I didn’t guess what was going to happen… until it was revealed at the end.
It was, in my mind, the finest episode of Sherlock yet; perhaps only rivalled by the first episode, A Study in Pink.
And more than that – it leaves you wondering; could any of this really happen?
In the United Kingdom, the grisly legacy of Jimmy Saville proves that it can, and it does.
In fact, the recent “fake news” about alleged pedophilia in Washington D.C., centered around the Comet Ping Pong pizza restaurant, kind of plays into that. Before it was definitively proven to be “fake news”, most of us dismissed the allegations of child trafficking anyway – because “there’s no way anybody could get away with that.”
But cases like the real-life Jimmy Saville, and the decades of child-abuse covered up by the Catholic Church, or the grisly tale of Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, prove that such things do happen, and powerful people do commit the most horrific crimes, and that regular folk eagerly cover them up so as “not to cause a fuss.”
The Lying Detective was the most chilling, most creepy, most real episode of Sherlock ever written; and if its implications don’t haunt you long into the night, you’re not paying attention.
Just like with Jimmy Saville, and the Catholic Church, and the Penn State scandal… we’d rather question our own sanity than accept the truth about these covered-up crimes.