I know, I’m coming very late to this particular party, but for some reason I never caught on to the BBC series Luther when it originally aired in 2010. Maybe I was busy doing something else, or perhaps the promotional campaign at the time simply didn’t appeal to me in that it looked like just another story of a troubled maverick cop breaking all the rules in his obsessive hunt for justice.
Having missed the first series entirely (and then naturally felt stepping straight into season 2 wasn’t a good idea) it’s taken a first-time re-run on the UK TV Alibi channel to finally get me to watch – and make me an instant convert.
What an excellent series. And the reason for just how good it is can be summed up in just two names – Idris Elba and Neil Cross, respectively star and creator/writer of the show. Elba of course made his name by being so impressive as part of the ensemble line-up in the already overwhelmingly brilliant The Wire, but here he’s given for want of a better description a star vehicle, a show completely built up around what he can do inhabiting a single character central stage.
Suffice to say he doesn’t let anyone down, as he towers head and shoulders over this production both physically and artistically, creating one of the most compulsively complex yet entirely believable characters currently on our screens. Yes, he’s a brilliant detective who intuits whodunnit almost before the opening titles have finished, but he’s also a deeply flawed man in both his personal and professional life and whose tendency to do what’s perhaps morally right rather than that’s judicially correct means that he’s always walking the edge. In the process he makes us reevaluate what we would do and moreover what we want our police to do: follow the rules, or get the bad guy and save the victim? Is it ever possible to do both well or does one always compromise the other?
While the character of Luther dominates the show, Elba has been gifted an excellent supporting cast to back him up, from experienced stalwarts like Saskia Reeves as Luther’s boss to Steven Mackintosh as his loyal best friend, the ever-wonderful (and perennially under-appreciated) Indira Varma as his estranged wife and Paul McGann as her new partner. However it’s the nominal junior member of the regular cast, Warren Brown as Luther’s new sidekick DS Justin Ripley, who most impresses, using a deadpan level-headedness as a foil to stand up against the looming bravura performance of the show’s star. No wonder he caught TV producers’ eyes and shortly after got handed the lead role in his own police procedural, Good Cop, as PC John-Paul Rocksavage.
Then there’s the character of Alice Morgan (played by Ruth Wilson), initially a murder suspect but as the series goes on she becomes an increasingly unhinged foil for Luther, tugging away at the delicate threads that make up his life and coming close to bringing him down on a number of occasions. And yet this femme fatale also has an allure and a usefulness for Luther such that she becomes almost a twisted lipstick vamp version of Hannibal Lector for him, as they dance and even flirt while knowing full well that it can only end badly for one or both of them.
The development of this strand is one of the overarching storylines of the six-part first season, along with Luther’s marriage and also the small question of the kidnapper in a coma in hospital who, if he ever wakes up, will surely spell the end of Luther’s career and liberty. Together they give the whole production a strong sense of knowing what it’s doing, where it’s going and what it’s trying to do as a whole, and not just a collection of case-of-the-week crimes to solve, which is all credit to series creator Neil Cross.
Within the stand-alone weekly crimes, the series’ other main conceit is to revive Columbo for South London in the 21st century: Luther himself is always too evidently dangerous to be successful as a self-deprecating misdirection in a shabby raincoat, but Luther takes that 1970s show’s idea of dispensing with the whodunnit and making it clear from the outset who the guilty party is. Instead, the rest of the episode becomes a battle of wills between the culprit and Luther to see who will come out victorious. As a police procedural it’s somewhat bare and at times questionable in its authenticity, but the makers have themselves described the show’s approach as ‘impressionistic’ rather than ‘realistic’ on that score.
Inevitably these individual episodes can be a little up and down – the first centring on the murder of Alice Morgan’s family is excellent, the second is a gripping story of a former army sniper on a rampage targeting police officers while the third has a rather more over-the-top and less subtle Satan-worshipping psychotic/evil genius prone to sitting around and drinking goblets of fresh blood while cackling gently to himself. Still, the cases – and the murderers – are really only there as a foil for Luther to engage with, and it’s in watching Idris Elba flesh out Luther’s response to each scenario that gives the series its real strength.
While there are some nice touches in the direction that show off modern London very well, it isn’t a particularly eye-catchingly styled production – although I do particularly like the way that the ‘next week’ preview teaser is incorporated into the end credit which gives the season as a whole a sense of a quality and continuity to it.
As you can tell, I’ve been very taken by this show and am still kicking myself for missing it when it originally came out. I thought I had better antennae than that, and with the amount of dross I end up watching on TV I’d have thought a genuinely classy piece of drama wouldn’t have slipped through the net so easily. But still, three years after the fact I’m watching at last – and after all, that’s still more timely than I’ve managed with The Wire or The Sopranos!
The reruns of Series 1 continue at 9pm on Thursday evenings on Alibi. Series 1 and Series 2 are available on DVD both separately and as a boxset. A third series of Luther begins on BBC1 next month and will be released on DVD on August 5, 2013.