Take a quick look at the evolution of British television over the past few decades and one thing becomes instantly apparent: UK viewers could never bemoan a lack of crime procedural dramas. Taggart, Frost, Morse, Lewis, Sherlock… It’s safe to say our country has had its fair share of on-screen sleuths, each one boasting a unique flare and charm that has always ensured we’d tune in the following week for more crime solving.
Joining the ranks of the above-mentioned gumshoes is the Neil Cross-scripted Luther, arguably the most gripping crime drama to grace TV screens in a while. With the first season airing almost concurrently with Sherlock back in summer 2010, comparisons between the two shows are almost inevitable. However, while Benedict Cumberbatch’s wonderfully eccentric portrayal of Conan Doyle’s legendary detective is worthy of praise, Cross deserves the lion’s share of the plaudits for creating an equally compelling character entirely from scratch.
Neil Cross’ superior British crime drama, Luther.
And what a character John Luther is. When we first meet him in the series’ pilot he is barely recovering from a nervous breakdown following the capture of a serial paedophile he put into a coma several months earlier. His colleagues respect his innate detecting skills, but don’t know whether to trust him. To make matters worse, his personal life is a total shambles, as he is incapable of accepting his ex-wife has moved on and moved in with a new partner.
So far, so very tortured TV cop. But what elevates Luther is Idris Elba’s performance as the titular character. While his towering stature and ethnic background (despite the modern times we live in, you can still count on one, maybe two hands the number of black leading men in mainstream shows) are already enough to lend him presence, it is Elba’s efforts to ground John Luther in reality that make him human and relatable. There are no quips or knockout punches thrown when he is held at gunpoint by a madman, just nervous reasoning and barely concealed anxiety. Elba also excels at portraying physical unrest (a trait not many actors manage to pull off convincingly), as he comes up with a series of ticks and gestures that become symptomatic throughout the episodes – watch him as he frequently wipes his face, stiffens his hands in his pockets or clasps them behind his skull at the scene of a crime.
Neil Cross spices things up further by pitting his leading man against an unusual sparring partner in the form of Ruth Wilson’s Alice Morgan, a remarkably intelligent young scientist who manages to kill her parents in such a cold and calculated manner, not even Luther is able to prove her culpability despite knowing she did it. Nevertheless, because of Alice’s admiration and subsequent infatuation with the charismatic DCI, the two form an intriguing relationship that gets progressively more twisted and profound throughout the season, yet somewhat refreshingly never results in a romantic liaison. In that respect, Alice can be viewed as a femme fatale version of Hannibal Lecter and Ruth Wilson is talented enough to sell that image.
But perhaps Luther’s biggest strength is that it’s a show that’s not afraid to portray the world – and London in particular – as a dark, dangerous place where loose ends aren’t neatly tied up and, most distressingly, a happy ending is anything but guaranteed. Hostages are mutilated, mothers frozen to death and key characters are killed off without compromise, making you wonder every step of the way whether anyone is ever really safe. Not many police dramas, including the ones name-checked at the beginning of this review have the guts or the luxury to pull off such a feat (and yes, that goes for Sherlock too). The fact that Luther manages to do so convincingly and with minimal effort makes it a must-see for those who like their cop shows gloomy and gritty.