DCI John Luther (Elba) is a brilliant murder detective with a talent for understanding the criminal mindset. Obsessive and consumed by his work, his ability has left him somewhat damaged though, suffering from mental trauma and estranged from his wife (Varma) after an intense, high-profile case. Returning to London’s Serious Crimes Unit a year later, Luther tries to put his life back together, while genius-level sociopath Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) attempts to strike up a friendship…
Undeniably, Luther isn’t the most original of police shows. A maverick, loose-cannon copper who’s on the edge, separated from his wife and battling personal demons? Yes, we’ve seen this sort of thing before. But yet, for all the well-worn cop clichés and familiar stereotypes, the Beeb’s psychological detective drama is surprisingly worthy and very watchable. Created by Spooks lead writer Neil Cross (who pens each instalment) and starring in-demand Brit talent Idris Elba, this six-part series rises above its generic storytelling ingredients to provide entertaining escapism which veers between guilty pleasure viewing and – as is the case during the gripping final episodes – compelling, edge-of-your-seat stuff.
Boasting a noir-ish vibe and with lots of dashing about, the tone is more of a heightened reality than the ultra-realism of The Wire. But while you’ll occasionally roll your eyes at some of the deductive leaps our brilliant hero makes (“She’s yawning – she has no empathy and must be the killer!”, “He walks confidently – he’s a military man!”), Cross and co. still take the material seriously enough to generate genuine tension and drama. It’s unfortunately mostly procedural crimes-of-the-week, but as an added bonus our eponymous detective catches these villains by psychologically manipulating each one into making mistakes – as opposed to simply blowing them up after a car chase.
Though employing a mix of Sherlock Holmes (genius deducing sleuth) and Columbo (we know who the guilty party is, but not how they’ll get caught), there’s also welcome shades of Manhunter / Silence Of The Lambs, given Luther’s consulting ‘relationship’ with high-functioning killer Alice Morgan. In terms of plausibility, he indulges her too much given that she murdered her parents in the first episode (!), but the alluring Ruth Wilson is great value as the flirty, mindgame-playing femme fetale. Plus, her recurring appearances – she’s fascinated with Luther and wants to be friends – lend a partly-serialised feel to the show that distracts from the forgettable killers-of-the-week.
Still, the series belongs firmly to Idris Elba, his commanding presence and electric intensity consistently elevating the cliché-friendly material. The supporting players are decent too (Indira Varma as the estranged wife, Paul McGann making an overdue ‘comeback’ as her new partner), but this is the Elba show, with the former Wire man back to home turf after becoming a familiar movie face and landing his first starring UK tele role.
Hardly an original cop show, Luther somehow remains a watchable and entertaining psychological detective drama, while Idris Elba is every bit as commanding in the lead as you’d expect.