Monday, February 10, 2014

"Luther," Year Three

Minor spoilers ahead.

I'm doing some catching up on my British crime dramas. The second series of "Luther" felt like a big step down form the first, because the overarching story simply wasn't as compelling and the new characters were less interesting. Fortunately the third series is a big improvement on both fronts. Luther gets a major new antagonist in DSI George Stark (David O'Hara), who with the help of DCI Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) is secretly investigating Luther for corruption and misconduct, a thread that carries through the whole series.

Like the last round, we get four episodes this time out, which can be neatly split into a pair of two-parters. Unlike last time, though, this series is much better paced and more cohesive. The first half has Luther juggling a pair of cases simultaneously, the murder of an internet troll, and multiple attacks by serial killer with some peculiar fetishes. His partner Ripley (Warren Brown) is contacted by Stark and Gray, who want his cooperation with their investigation of Luther, casting doubts on Ripley's loyalty. Luther also gets a new love interest, Mary Day (Sienna Guillory), who gets roped into the action in the second half of the series, where Luther is pitted against an attention-seeking vigilante killer who likes going after criminals he doesn't think have been punished enough.

"Luther" has always been bloodier and more gruesome than your average television crime drama, and that's certainly the case in this set of episodes, where we meet some pretty memorable, depraved perpetrators. There's about one gut-churning, avert-your-eyes moment per episode and plenty of high tension thrills throughout. Fortunately for the squeamish, this is well balanced by the character drama of the more thoughtful investigation storyline. Previous series have questioned how far over the line Luther can push before going too far, but the way the investigation story is framed, Luther is invariably shown to be in the right, and the focus is largely on Ripley and then other characters grappling with the decision of what side they'll come down on.

Luther himself has gotten cuddlier as a character, his demons still in residence but further beneath the surface. He has a few flares of temper when met with hurdles during his cases, but few moments of the truly uneasy ambiguity that made his morality such a puzzle in the past. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the series plays out fine with Luther as a more typical good guy, but it makes the character and the series undeniably different from what came before. Idris Elba remains charismatic and appealing and so John Luther is still easy to stay invested in. If we take show creator Neil Cross's claim that this is the last series of "Luther" at face value, then I think it's perfectly satisfactory to have our hero close out the series on the side of angels for good.

"Luther" is not particularly sophisticated stuff, still dependent to a large extent on action and thrills, but the performances are good, the production values remain very high, and the writing is much stronger this year. The second series' sore thumb damsel in distress, Jenny, has been replaced with Guillory's Mary, who seems an unlikely love match for John Luther, but at least she's a more logically sound character with a good sense of autonomy. Warren Brown gets a good amount of the spotlight this year and sells several big moments. I also want to highlight the work of guest stars, Kevin Fuller and Elliott Cowan, who play this year's two most colorful murderers. I still miss Indira Varma and Saskia Reeves from the first season, but not nearly as much.

And what about Alice Morgan, Luther's serial killer associate who remains one of the show's best creations? There's been some talk of spinning her off for her own show, which I'm behind 100%. However, "Luther" stays mum on the subject. Let's just say that she has a part to play in the new series, but how big a part and the nature of the part is a big spoiler. Ruth Wilson has been busy with film roles lately, so I'll caution fans of Alice not to expect much. The new series is a perfectly good watch without her contributions in any case.

The next we'll see of "Luther" is reportedly a theatrical feature, which sounds like a great idea. The character is in a good position to jump to the big screen, and a feature would be a great vehicle to push Idris Elba's profile higher. The recent series have been so short, they feel like features already to a great extent. If the show ends here, though, I wouldn't be all that upset. "Luther" has had a good run and the third series ends in a very satisfying way.


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