Can one really call a two-part special a ‘season’ these days? Apparently you can, although to be honest on this evidence I’m still far from convinced. Nor am I at all sure that the quick-hit brevity works for a show like Luther.
Despite coming very late to the Luther party, I was a big fan of the first season which consisted of a fully-formed six episodes. To be honest I did feel that the show lost its way somewhat over the ensuing two shorter four-part seasons that followed, but it nonetheless remained eminently watchable not least thanks to the towering performance of Idris Elba in the title role which was nicely counterpointed by the deadpan level-headedness of his likeable loyal sidekick DC Ripley (Warren Brown).
I’ll be honest, I thought at the time that the decision to kill off the character of Ripley was a huge mistake. He was the last man standing of the original impressive ensemble cast that had made season 1 so special. This latest 2015 reprise saw the return of a couple of recurring characters who have since made their way to the fore with Dermot Crowley back as Luther’s latest boss and Michael Smiley as the team’s IT specialist, but in all honest neither man was given much of any note to do this time around.
Instead we have Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie coming on board as Luther’s new vengeance-prone sidekick, although initially she’s partnering Luther’s opposite number DCI Theo Bloom (Darren Boyd). There’s also Patrick Malahide coasting in the role of East End gangland boss George Cornelius and Laura Haddock as clairvoyant Megan Cantor, all of which would make a good basis to start from if this were to be a full-length season. The trouble here is that with only two hours to work with there’s scant time to develop any of the newcomers, especially when the focus is as ever so firmly on Luther himself.
Despite that, the first of the two episodes gets off to a good start. It might not be vintage Luther but it’s still an effective and fast-paced hour as we catch up with Luther who is currently on long-term leave, staying on the coast in a precariously-balanced cliff-top holiday home (a not very subtle analogy to Luther’s own on-the-edge state of mind.) Naturally the sabbatical is short-lived, and shocking developments soon mean Luther is recalled to duty to hunt down Hackney Wick’s latest twisted psycho (a rote genre serial-killer-of-the-week, albeit impressively played by John Heffernan.)
The first episode comes to a nice climax – but then something goes seriously wrong in the second. It’s as if writer/creator Neil Cross had storylined a four-part season and been forced to condense everything down to 60 minutes instead because part two goes off in so many different directions that it’s soon rather bewildering. Worse still, there’s too little time for the stories and characters to develop and so we don’t really care about any of it either. Before this I never, ever thought I’d be saying that an hour of Luther would leave me bored.
Picking up the serial killer’s trail again feels half-hearted and rushed, almost grudging, because Luther has become obsessed with finding out what has happened to his longtime nemesis/romantic interest Alice Morgan, a twisted lipstick vamp version of Hannibal Lector. Reports and CCTV footage insist that she’s been killed and Luther identifies some of Cornelius’ men as being involved, but then Cantor shows up with knowledge that only Alice could have had. Is she a real psychic or up to a devious game – and if so, on who’s behalf? Is Alice herself somehow still alive somewhere and pulling the strings? The answer lies in a long-past case that a young Constable Luther worked many years ago.
The trouble with all this is that the details of the long-ago case are told to us rather than shown. I couldn’t say that I followed the details, but that’s mainly because I was never really properly engaged or interested. Cantor herself seemed like a poor man’s substitute for Alice (despite Haddock being very good at these slightly unhinged, dark and dangerous roles as she’s demonstrated in Da Vinci’s Demons). Meanwhile the viewer has been left waiting in breathless expectation for the big reveal and the return of Alice even if only for one final scene cameo so that when it doesn’t come (Ruth Wilson presumably too busy filming HBO’s The Affair) and moreover nothing is properly explained or resolved, the lingering impression as the closing credits role is one of a serious anticlimactic let down.
Another strand draining oxygen out of the hour was Luther’s feud with Cornelius which quickly escalated to the point where the crime lord put a bounty on Luther’s head, meaning that every bad guy in the city was now literally gunning for him. Or so at least we are told. All we actually get to see are two brainless muppets who can’t even pull off a simple motorcycle drive-by shooting without cocking it up and getting taken out by Luther weilding a dustbin. Less a Godfather street hit, more Dastardly and Muttley in Wacky Races. In any case the whole storyline quickly dribbles to a conclusion with a hastily exchanged truce, and once again the viewer is left thinking “Is that it? What was the point of that?”
Actually, that’s pretty much my suggested strapline to the entire two-part ‘special’ as a whole, which felt to me at least like two hours of television striving to find some purpose in life that was worthy of its effortlessly impressive and charismatic star, but unfortunately falling quite badly short. Perhaps this is one show that shouldn’t have tried to hit the comeback trail after all, and we’re best left with our boxsets of the original 14 episodes instead.
Rating for part 1: ★ ★ ★ 1/2
Rating for part 2: ★ ★
Season 4 of Luther is currently available on the BBC iPlayer. It is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on January 4 2016.