By Arturo R. García
Formulaic? Sure. But in a year of feel-good network pap like Hawaii Five-O and Undercovers, Luther at least provides a taut, nasty little respite, and a place where Idris Elba can stretch his character-building muscles a bit.
As I said in previewing the show, Elba’s title character is something relatively rare in the realm of POC tv gumshoes: he’s not the Cool Guy. In fact, the show wastes little time in establishing him as a latter-day pulp figure: he may be smart, but he’s far from smooth.
We meet John Luther attempting to rebound from his personal low point: his pursuit of a child-killer leads to Luther letting the perp drop nearly to his death, rather than doing the right thing – or at least, the professionally mandated thing – and arresting the guy. But instead of taking a righteous pose, Luther’s eyes reveal, if not sadness, then the absolute right reaction: oh sh-t, what did I just do?
Months later, he’s cleared to return to his post as a Detective Chief Inspector and welcomed warmly by both his unit and eager rookie Justin Ripley (Warren Brown). In a welcome change-of-pace, there’s neither histrionics from Luther’s boss (Saskia Rhodes) nor a Training Day-like hazing ritual between Luther and Ripley. Everybody just tries to get on with their jobs.
That gets derailed almost immediately when Luther encounters Alice Morgan. Now, though Luther’s theory as to her guilt is goofy – “she doesn’t yawn”? Really? – we get a good payoff in seeing Ruth Wilson take the character from mousy to menacing. And seeing her actually get away with it to become an threat to Luther and his estranged wife Zoe (the reliably classy Indira Varma) is another nice touch. Zoe herself adds the insult to injury on Luther’s personal front. Not only has she started seeing a new man, but he’s actually … not a bad guy. For all of his intellectual prowess, Luther’s the last one to know, and the character’s lack of “cool” makes his subsequent breakdown more believable, even if it threatens to skew into Angry Black Man territory.
As noted in the preview post, it’s fair to mention a Trigger Warning for this show: if you’re not a fan of Law & Order-style “heightened reality”-style crime scenes and violence, this show isn’t for you. The second and third episodes are particularly unnerving, if done well; this show isn’t about Whodunit as much as what Luther will do next to maintain his increasingly tenuous sense of self, as the line between Luther and the crooks he goes after gets blurrier and blurrier. In this case, a bit of moral ambiguity goes farther than you’d expect.