On DVD: Luther: Series One

The BBC police drama Luther, starring Idris Elba as a London detective, generates suspense and entertainment value without ever doing anything outside of genre conventions. Its grittiness is too slick to feel dangerous, its characters are familiar, and its larger story arcs too predictable. Yet Elba is forceful and appealing, and his DCI John Luther has more than enough flaws and dark places to make the character compelling.  The show displays a certain awareness of its own edge, but I wanted it to push the envelope even more, despite moments of real polish and even excellence.

Created and written by Nick Cross, the first series of
Luther comprises six episodes that maintain a careful balance between episode-specific plots and series-long story arcs. John Luther is a cop tormented by a sense of empathic injustice he feels on behalf of the victims of the crimes he investigates. In the opening episode, Luther is seen extracting information from a child-killer who hangs above a gaping chasm. After getting what he needs out of the killer, Luther watches, frozen, while the killer slowly loses his grip and falls several dozen feet.

In this scene, as in many others, Elba's characterization captures the fidgety dueling impulses within Luther. We see him at once grappling with a desire to punish the killer, as well as with an understanding of the limitations of the laws he upholds. Luther is a good man, no doubt, but he has to manage some serious self-destructive tendencies.

The killer survives the fall, and spends much of the series in a coma. Luther, however, is cleared of wrongdoing by an internal investigation, and is back to work after a few months. His first case involves what looks like a home invasion gone bad: a middle-aged couple is gunned down, along with their dog. Luther almost immediately suspects their daughter, a chilly, intelligent red-haired siren named Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). But without physical evidence to connect her to the crime, Luther has to let her go. Luther and Alice are both intellectuals with a complex grasp of right and wrong, and of their respective and somewhat iffy positions on either side of the criminal divide. This relationship continues to develop throughout the season, at some points reaching odd and interesting places, and at other times appearing too contrived. In particular, Alice's more moustache-twirling, Moriarty-esque moments are a bit rich with vaudevillian villainy.

Also at the forefront of the ongoing plot is Luther's relationship with his estranged wife, Zoe (Indira Varma), who has taken up with another man, but who remains in a precariously vulnerable position of with respect to Luther's rage over their split and Alice's ongoing stalking of her.

Elba is commanding, to say the least, in the title role. His charisma is probably the major reason
Luther works as well as it does; the series, as written, could have easily been much more hackneyed. Luther's brilliance as a detective often comes across as too convenient. His investigative techniques are never explored in any depth. Instead, he intuitively hits on right answer after right answer. We never really know how he thinks through his police work. The plot-oriented conflicts that Luther contends with - his relationship with Zoe, his rivalry with Alice - drive the story's momentum, and Elba works hard to keep things afloat, turning Luther into a fireball of energy who is unpredictable and quick-witted. He makes the character fascinating to watch, despite being under-written. 

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