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Luther: Series 1 (Review)

You know, when I wonder why Irish television can’t produce quality drama, I am not looking across the pond towards our American cousins. I realise the sheer scale of the economy and the entertainment industry over there means that any possible point of comparison is just absurd. While the Great Britain is considerably larger, I look at the BBC and wonder why Irish television can’t even be nearly as good as that. After all, we have produced more than our fair share of Nobel laureates for literature, produce great artists, writers and actors in numbers quite disproportionate to our side. And I can’t point to a single Irish television show that is any way iconic – but perhaps that’s too much to expect.

Why can’t we even have something half as good as Luther?

I think he just copped it...

Luther is, quite simply, a rather wonderful take on a familiar concept. To describe this six-part series as a “police procedural” doesn’t really do writer Neil Cross’s show the justice that it deserves. It’s anchored in those modern crime-and-punishment television shows, drawing from such successful American hits as Criminal Minds or Law & Order or even CSI, but it works so well because it takes those familiar core concepts and turns them upside down, just a little bit. It works because the leads in the show don’t interact with the crimes and victims in the rational and dispassionate manner that American television cops seem to prefer. By the way, I like the fact that, in the penultimate episode, Luther even references Law & Order: SVU John Munch – which means that Luther technically coexists in the same fictional universe as Stringer Bell (since Munch appeared in The Wire).

Basically, it takes all the darkness and violence at the heart of those American television show, and asks how human beings would react when confronted with them. The leads aren’t purely clinical cyphers that exist to move the plot on, they feel and they hurt and they suffer. They endure. They don’t have blind faith in the criminal justice system, or the belief that “the evidence never lies”, because they know from experience that this isn’t the case. Murders go unsolved, crooks get off on technicalities, evil people lie and barter their way out of horrible situations, while those around them are left to pick up the pieces.

This could be the start of a dysfunctional friendship...

Interestingly enough, the series begins with a powerful moral compromise. We’re introduced to a man in a sharp suit being chased down by a larger, menacing figure in a hoody. Immediately flipping our preconceived notions around, the man in the business suit is pedophile and murderer, while the man hunting him in the hoody is a police officer, DCI John Luther. The killer slips and finds himself hanging on for dear life. Luther lets him dangle there, pressing him for the location of the bodies. The killer confesses, begging for help.

And Luther lets him fall.

Arresting drama...

It’s a sin of omission. Luther didn’t drop the man, nor throw him. He just… didn’t help. It’s an interesting premise, as Luther stands alone in the darkness. Nobody will really ever know unless he tells them. There are no witnesses, and his victim is in a coma. Luther is cleared of any wrong-doing, and is fit to return to duty a few months later. His ambitious supervisor, DSU Rose Teller, readily accepts the brilliant criminal profiler back to her team, because she desperately needs the unit to work, and Luther’s keen intellect and insight are beyond compare.

However, the series isn’t necessarily interested in the mechanics of police deduction. Most of the episodes start with the killer revealed to the audience, and it’s not too long before Luther and his team catch up. Indeed, a lot of the leads they uncover are mechanical plot devices, because the series isn’t really a collection of whodunnit thrillers. Instead, it’s an examination of how people relate to themselves and one another in a universe populated with “dark matter”, the presence of which, Alice – a physicist accused of murdering her parents – suggests, can be deduced only from the influence it has on the things we can see, rather than ever be detected in its own right.

It's a city job... But somebody's got to do it...

Once Luther has made that initial compromise, where does he draw the line? Does he frame a killer he knows to be guilty? Does he plant evidence to allow him to blackmail a witness? Does he manipulate the wife of a murderer into doing exactly what he needs to? Sure, he can measure his victories in lives saved (or, if you want to be morbid, victims avenged), but what toll does that take on the man? And what distinctions remain between him and the people he chases?

DS Martin Schenk, assigned to investigate Luther’s possible involvement in corruption, admits that he can see the justification for such actions, but he makes the line absolutely clear. There can be no ambiguities, everything must follow the rule and the procedures, because – once you begin to compromise – it becomes very difficult to delineate between those “bending”the rules for a good cause and those breaking them for personal gain. That is, the series suggests, the real cost of these sorts of moral compromises – it isn’t the fact that some horrible monster has just had their civil rights violated, it’s what the violations say about us as a civilised society.

A killer friendship...

As John Luther spins further out of control, he finds himself growing closer to Alice, an amoral sociopath who murdered her parents seemingly just for the sake of it. “One coffee doesn’t make us friends,” he insists at the end of the first episode, but he grows closer to her over the length of the series – to the point where she certainly has a deeper understanding of him than his colleagues, and perhaps even his ex-wife. This is a man whose moral detachment has allowed him to effectively befriend a serial killer, one who even threatens him and those close to him. Even he questions the relationship throughout the series, but the two can’t stay away. The difference between them, Alice suggests, is one of degree rather than classification.

In fact, when a fellow police officer murders a suspect in cold-blood, it’s telling that Luther’s first instinct is to cover for his friend. It doesn’t seem to matter to Luther whythe cop killed, as it was to protect his reputation rather than a primal anger or rage. Luther just wants to cover up the crime and continue on. This is the type of corruption that the initial compromise can give way to, as moral standards are eroded and chipped away. The rogue police officer is able to justify everything by assuring himself that – if he doesn’t kill these people – all his arrest will be called into question. He’s able to use the same logic that Luther does – weighing the greater good against these particular circumstances – to reach some terrifying answers.

A Luth-less detective...

And, over the six-episode run, the series tangles with the questions brilliantly. It helps that Neil Cross provides absolutely gripping scripts, but also that Idris Elba is in the title role. Elba is an actor who cannot achieve recognition fast enough, and I’m delighted that he appears to be the most successful former cast member of The Wire. He gives Luther a sense of depth and pathos, providing brilliant line-readings and making the character come to life, rather than existing as a collection of familiar cop show clichés. It’s it’s Elba who gives Luther’s tantrums amazing force, and makes his conversations with suspects seem playful yet layered with subtext. Elba knocks it out of the park here.

It helps that Elba is supported by a sterling supporting cast. Saskia Reeves has been one of those British actresses to watch for a while now, and she’s great as his supervising officer. Indira Varma plays Zoe, Luther’s ex-wife, who manages to appear graceful through perhaps some of the more awkward moments of the series. Any Paul McGann is good Paul McGann, if you ask me. However, the only other member of the cast who can possibly hold a candle to Elba is Ruth Wilson as Alice, the sociopath who finds herself becoming increasingly close to the profiler.

A bridge between them...

Elba and Wilson share a remarkable screen chemistry, and work genuinely well together. It’s the conversations between the pair that are often the most revealing, as they talk like lovers or old friends, despite barely knowing one another. There’s a perverse and candid honesty between the pair, and the most surreal sense that they do harbour some strange affection for one another. And that’s equally uncomfortable and fascinating at the same time.

Luther might not be the strongest show out there. In fact, some of the middle episodes seem like remarkably conventional police thrillers, but the wonderful themes and subplots keep the show ticking over. The strong cast give the series their all. And the finale? Man, that is one of the better endings to a series I have seen in quite some time. I’m looking forward to digging into the second series soon.

8 Responses

  1. Good to see people discovering this.

    To (not) answer your “Why can’t we even have something half as good as Luther?” question… why can’t the BBC make anything else half as good as Luther?!?!? Even the 2nd series!!!

    Alice was probably the person that made it for me, just brilliant. Shame she doesn’t get much time in S2 either. Great stories, great chaacters and great TV

  2. I came across it on Netflix streaming. I’ve only seen two episodes so far. The problem for me- being “across the pond”- are the accents. I find I miss a lot. Even so, I wish our network shows could be half as good. Although, maybe they are. I quit watching tv two years ago and watch only movies and series like this when they’re offered. Idris Alba is a forceful actor. Ruth Wilson is scary! And I mean that as the highest praise.

    • Enjoy it. It really kicks into gear during the penultimate episode. It’s odd. I hear English accents perfectly, but I occasionally have difficulty with (genuine, not staged) Irish accents in home-produced movies.

  3. Is this a JOKE?

    idris Elba has gone so down in my books after this.

    Terribly unrealistics and soo artificial.

    None of the cases are in anyway realistic and it just annoyed me how it has the whole ‘hollywood style demon thing’ what just makes you jump for no reason apart from how obsurd it is in parts and how bad some of the acting is.

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