With my favorite police procedurals like "Law & Order: SVU" and "Criminal Minds" being in such a sorry state these days, I've started looking at other options. This weekend, I took in the first three episodes of the BBC's "Luther," which makes up a full half a season because that's how the Brits roll. It follows a fairly familiar template of cops versus the serial-killer-of-the-week, and doesn't do anything particularly new or different. However, the quality of the production and the talented actors involved make it worth giving a look.
The title character is Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, played by Idris Elba. Not having seen his work as Stringer Bell on "The Wire," this is my first experience with Elba outside of secondary and bit roles in action movies. As Luther, he is the main attraction and he gives viewers an interesting, complicated character to root for. Like so many other law enforcement heroes, Luther's defining characteristics are a driving passion for police work and a touch of moral ambiguity. He chafes at regulations and is on the receiving end of far too many stern talks from his supervisors, but of course is brilliant enough a detective to get away with more than he should. Luther has his demons, however, notably the pedophile murderer who winds up in a coma through Luther's inaction. Guilt and self-doubt over the incident result in a long leave from active duty and a separation from his wife Zoe (Indira Varma).
Elba plays Luther as a man in recovery, trying to ease back into his professional life and rebuild his private one. He brings a wonderful sense of unease, of being constantly on the verge of losing control. Other troubled television cops may have their outbursts and lose their tempers, but few couple such a wonderful veneer of ultra-capable confidence with so much roiling inner turmoil. When John Luther loses his cool, he doesn't just lash out. He explodes. Fortunately, he's surrounded by people trying their best not to let that happen, including Luther's best friend and fellow detective Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), and an eager younger partner, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown). The female members of the ensemble are especially strong, including Saskia Reeves as the no-nonsense Detective Superintendent Teller, and Indira Varma as Zoe, who is terribly sympathetic even as she keeps breaking Luther's heart.
And then there's Ruth Wilson, who plays the serial killer Alice Morgan (no relation to Dexter). I don't want to say too much about her, for fear of giving anything away, but she very nearly steals the whole show. Wilson is almost over the top as Alice, with her evil smiles and knowing glances, but she's so unapologetic and comfortable in her villainy as few depictions of female killers are. We know there's something terribly wrong with her each time she appears onscreen, but she's such a fascinating, unpredictable character, with her own peculiar charisma. She makes a great opponent for Luther, and their interactions are some of the best moments of the show.
With only six episodes in a season, the individual episodes of "Luther" are much better conceived and executed than most comparable American police procedurals. Each of the three installments I've seen so far have featured mostly solid writing with a lot of good character development and very little statistic-spouting expository patter or glib moralizing. Viewers hoping for something grittier and more realistic are going to be disappointed though. So far, "Luther" stays firmly within the bounds of television conventions for the genre, with the played-up interrogation scenes and the occasional action set-piece. The cinematography is slick, and the directors give viewers plenty of interesting environments and unconventional shots to admire. The tone may be on the subdued side, but there's no lack of excitement.
However, it's only in Luther's relationships with his wife and with other characters that we get into juicier material that's farther off the beaten path, and this is what I'm hoping for more of in the latter half of the season. Idris Elba is great, and I want to see him be able to do more with John Luther than what I've seen to date. While "Luther" is very good as a police show, I suspect it could be an even better as character drama. The writers have been very good about giving us story arcs with some interesting twists, but will they pay off in the end? Fortunately, the nice thing about these short British television seasons is that I'll be able to find out sooner rather than later.