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TV Review: Luther

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What is it that makes a television series distinctly British?  Is it the washed out colors?  Is it the stark backgrounds?  The haunting music?  The almost minimalist sense of the sets?  The perennially steel grey sky?  It can’t be, because while many British series have those things in common, all of them certainly don’t.  Yet, watching many British shows there can be no doubt – even before someone opens their mouth – that you’re watching a British show.  I would actually venture to say that in the upcoming series Luther, even when it is paused it is clearly a British series.

Starring Idris Elba (The Wire), Luther is the story of a police detective, John Luther, a man who perennially operates somewhere near, or over, the line between right and wrong.  He is a fantastically smart person, but he’s also single-minded, doesn’t routinely play well with others, and has quite the temper.  Additionally, he is, like the series which he is in, incredibly compelling. 

No, John Luther isn’t an entirely new character – cops who do the right thing (or what they think is the right thing) no matter the cost have been seen before – but he’s no less interesting for his being familiar.  There are moments in this dark drama where even Luther and those with whom he works seem to BBCrecognize that he is something of a cliché, but his being a cliché doesn’t take anything away from him or the show.

The reason the character works as well as he does is Elba himself.  If anyone on this side of the pond recognizes him it will most likely be due to either his role as Stringer Bell on The Wire or Charles Miner from The Office, but Elba has a much larger career than just those roles.  The reason he works here, and what he lends to John Luther so wonderfully, is his sense of gravitas.  John Luther is a dark and serious man and Elba portrays him that way. 

In one episode in this series, in discussing Luther, someone says that if he had simply been exposed to one different thing (book, song, movie, etc.) at a different moment in his life, he could have taken an incredibly different track.  It is stated with the idea that he could have been a better, more lighthearted, easier going kind of guy.  However, the truth of his character is that not only is that statement accurate, but had he read a different book, or heard a different song, etc., he could also easily have become one of the people he finds himself tracking down.  Luther fights on the side of justice, but one gets the sense that his perception of justice could easily have been formulated in order to make him a entirely different person.  Luther is a great detective, but he could just as easily have been one of the worst criminals.

As a detective series, Luther is certainly not for the faint of heart.  The cases which Luther attempts to solve are of a disturbing nature, and the way in which Luther approaches them is no less troublesome.  It is not simply that Luther is willing to bash in the brains of whomever he has to in order to get results, he is perfectly willing to get his own brains bashed in if it will help catch the bad guy.

It is here, with the bad guy, that the show illustrates one major difference between itself and so many other police dramas – very quickly in each episode, Luther knows who did it, that is not where the series finds is drama.  The trick is not in the whodunit, but in how the police are going to get the evidence to get their man/woman or simply to track the criminal down. 

Luther doesn’t have to go it alone on these cases, he’s got an assortment of co-workers too.  First, there’s his boss, Rose Teller (Saskia Reeves); then there’s his new partner, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown); and his longtime detective friend Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh).  Luther also has a wife from whom he’s separated, Zoe (Indira Varma), who has a new love interest, Mark (Paul McGann), and that too doesn’t make Luther’s life any easier.

Perhaps though this series is really set apart by one other budding relationship (I hesitate to call it a “friendship”) in Luther’s life, and that is the one he forms with Alice MorganBBC (Ruth Wilson).  Without giving much away about what takes place in the series, Alice is a crucial witness in an investigation in the first episode, and someone with whom Luther ends up having many dealings.  A brilliant woman, Alice has some distinct issues all her own and has no trouble insinuating herself into Luther’s life whether he wants her there or not.

It sounds trite and more than a little too easy to call Luther a brilliantly conceived and exceptionally executed drama with good characters and great actors, but to call it anything less would ring completely false.  Any fan of crime dramas will fall head over heels in love with the series.  And, provided that they’re not squeamish, anyone who simply likes good television will find a whole lot to enjoy in the series as well.  Created and written by Neil Cross (MI-5), Luther is not just British detective drama at its finest (although it is, as stated above, distinctly British), it is an experience worth having.

Oh, it is dark and it is sometimes difficult to watch, but Luther is wonderful.

Luther premieres on BBC America Sunday October 17 at 10pm.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.