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October 23, 2014

'Luther' Premiere Review: A Rogue London Cop with a 'Wire' Connection

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 14th 2010 2:40PM
A show about a troubled yet brilliant urban detective? Isn't that kind of character ready for the Entertainment Cliche Hall of Fame?

Judging by the pallid crop of cops that the American broadcast networks have been serving up lately, you'd think that there wasn't much life left in the old "Damn it, detective, you're out of line!" scenario.

Yet 'Luther' (10PM ET Sunday, BBC America), the story of an impulsive, very intelligent London cop, manages to be an excellent showcase for Idris Elba ('The Wire') and an increasingly impressive character drama that goes to some dark and absorbing places.

Especially in the second half of 'Luther's' 6-episode season, 'Luther' begins to feel like a well-paced crime novel, one that's less about finding the bad guys and more concerned with exploring what motivates the darker impulses of criminals -- and cops. 'Luther' needs some time to build up a head of steam, but by the last couple of episodes, its intensity and relentless knottiness are impressive indeed.

The first few episodes of 'Luther' are certainly competent, but the cases of the week are mostly self-contained, and though the show's supporting cast is extremely good, the main reason to tune in is to see Elba's magnetic performance. Luther is a legend in the London police force, but his treatment of one infamous criminal got him put on leave; when 'Luther' begins, he's just returned from that enforced absence. Nobody knows if he can contain his temper, least of all him.

There's an ongoing thread about Luther's ex-wife, Zoe (Indira Varma) and her new boyfriend (Paul McGann) that isn't very interesting at first, but as is the case with another thread about a complicated woman that Luther keeps encountering, that story ends up meriting the time devoted to it.

Ruth Wilson plays Alice, whom Luther encounters early in the season; I found both the character and the performance too arch and mannered for my taste. But as the show explored the connection between those characters -- one calculating and cold, one calculating yet reckless -- Alice's scenes became less melodramatic and forced.


The crime stories in 'Luther' are interesting and well-executed, which is a must, given that run-of-the-mill serial-killer procedurals leave me cold. But in several 'Luther' episodes, the audience learns who the killer is in the opening minutes. Because the show is more about the why than the how, and good at depicting the inventive methods that Luther and his team to catch killers, there's no loss of suspense or tension. And as all good cop shows must, 'Luther' features some excellent interrogation scenes that amply display Elba's chops -- Luther can go from laid-back to incisive without missing a beat.

Thanks to its atmosphere of melancholy menace, 'Luther' not only recalls the crime novels of writers like Ian Rankin, Denise Mina and Laura Lippman (not surprising, given that novelist and 'MI-5' writer Neil Cross created the show), it also harkens back to classic British cop shows like 'Cracker' and 'Prime Suspect.' Those dramas were certainly star vehicles but they were also gritty, thoughtful character studies about people who who couldn't separate themselves from the job. 'Luther' may not be a classic on a level with the best of 'Prime Suspect,' but the last couple of episodes of 'Luther's' first season were so twisty and twisted that I found myself more drawn in than I am by much more expensive feature films.

There are a few twists and turns that 'Luther' doesn't quite earn along the way: A longer season might have ensured that one character's surprising story line got a better setup. All in all, however, 'Luther's' increasing density and darkness becomes addictive, and it almost does the impossible -- it takes that old TV cliche about the detective who may think too much like a criminal and makes it feel fresh again.

One thing's for certain: With 'Luther,' 'Law and Order: UK' and 'Ashes to Ashes,' the British Isles are cranking out some excellent character-driven cop shows featuring memorable, subtle performances. Remember when we used to make those here in the colonies?

One final note:
Each episode of 'Luther' is 50 minutes or more, and I'm happy to report that BBC America is not cutting the episodes to fit into an hourlong slot. The network is airing each episode uncut in a 75-minute slot, followed by a 15-minute "making of" featurette.


Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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9 Comments

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erin

I just discovered the Luther series and absolutely love it! I hope the Golden Globe nomination will mean more than 2 seasons!

January 06 2011 at 7:56 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Patrick

Thanks, Mo, for your review! I will be sure to follow this series. Also, Brian Lowry at Variety gave it a rave review.

BBC may have only ordered 2 episodes for a second season, but I believe they will be two hours each, so in a sense it's two two-hour movies.

October 15 2010 at 2:45 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Inigo

I'd agree that Alice is arch and mannered. I bought it because of memories of child mathematics prodigy Ruth Lawrence in the early 80s. She was very similar albeit at a much younger age that Alice. (I think the BBC news videos are available globally so this link to an interview with her in 1985 might work - http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/july/4/newsid_2492000/2492853.stm) When I watched Luther here in the UK as it was broadcast, I actually wondered if Neil Cross and Ruth Wilson had deliberately used Ruth Lawrence as their template for Alice.

October 15 2010 at 5:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rex from Ars

"One final note: Each episode of 'Luther' is 50 minutes or more, and I'm happy to report that BBC America is not cutting the episodes to fit into an hourlong slot."

HOORAY! Too bad I watched this show via Bittorrent back when it aired in the UK, like 90% of the rest of the people who wanted to watch this show.

October 15 2010 at 12:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sareeta

Frank wrote: "This show premiered quite a long time ago. The first series has been over for some time now and they commissioned it for a two episode second series to come out in 2011."

A 2-episode 2nd season?! British TV shows already have short seasons (6 episodes is the norm, right?), so 2 seems extremely brief.

Anyway, I watched the first half On Demand and enjoyed it. I'm still struggling with Idris Elba's natural accent. He sounded so authentic as Stringer Bell on The Wire.

Also, it is good to see Indira Varma again. I haven't seen her work since Rome.

October 14 2010 at 8:10 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Sareeta's comment
Corey

I know! I hate when you find a great British show and soon find out there was only 6 episodes.

From what I have read only 2 episodes have been confirmed so hopefully they are ordering more. I assume they will depending on how well the 2 do since this show didn't do too well in the UK as far as I know.

I really hope it gets more episodes, Idris Elba is too good an actor to not get his own successful show.

October 15 2010 at 1:51 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

I think they're going to be two TV movies, so that's not so bad. But honestly, I'd rather see a show like 'Misfits', that may only have had six episodes but every one of them was awesome, than American network shows that contain a hell of a lot of filler to make up the order.

October 15 2010 at 7:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Corey

This show premiered quite a long time ago. The first series has been over for some time now and they commissioned it for a two episode second series to come out in 2011.

October 14 2010 at 4:18 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Craig Ranapia

Have you ever seen 'Ultaviolet', Mo? Wonderful 90's series from C4 in England -- written and directed by Joe Aherne -- that is a wonderful antidote to sparkly emo Twi-twittery. And an interest twist on the standard police procedural/conspiracy thriller. Well worth tracking down on DVD for wonderful performances by Elba, Suzannah Harker (Pride and Prejudice, House of Cards) and Jack Davenport (the Pirates trilogy, FlashForward).

October 14 2010 at 3:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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