Once The Wire finally became a critical hit in the UK late in its run, the local TV industry snapping up its British stars Dominic West and Idris Elba for local work was inevitable. West has since starred in several BBC productions including the recent The Hour, and Elba has his own cop show, Luther.
Cop shows need a twist or a distinctive aesthetic to rise above formula after decades of precedent, and Luther opts for the former. Elba plays Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, a livewire, angry police officer willing to bend the rules to get the bad guy. He also has a contentious relationship with his ex-wife (Indira Varma). So far, so Vic Mackey.
The twist comes in the alliance Luther forms with a sociopathic killer whose guilt he knows of but can’t prove. He knows he should have nothing to do with her, but keeps returning to her for a weird form of solace. Meanwhile, she makes her power known to his ex-wife and her boyfriend, playing with them out of an unexpected loyalty and devotion to Luther.
Threading through the stand-alone episodes, this storyline gives Luther some thematic meat. His connection to her occasionally feels contrived – he tells her it has to stop one time too many – but this more intimate take on police corruption is more refreshing than yet more evidence-planting and death threats.
Nonetheless, for the first few episodes Elba seems wasted because the material typically doesn’t rise to the high standard he sets. The script is also too in love with the Luther character, with the supporting characters seemingly there only to discuss how entrancingly volatile he is. Before long, you get sick of hearing his name. A great cast is also poorly served, with Steven Mackintosh and Saskia Reeves saddled with background detective roles and Paul McGann merely the bland Ex-Wife’s New Man.
The last two episodes then subvert that entirely. The characters themselves become the case, and certain members of the cast become crucial and are given much more to play. The preceding episodes could have established their interiority so the shift wasn’t so blunt, but the acting is so strong it almost doesn’t matter. The events that precipitate this thrilling storyline aren’t novel, but the twist discussed earlier again gives it some juice.
Because the show eschewed a distinctive aesthetic, the almost operatic emotions on display in these final episodes can be jarring and may seem woefully overblown. But Luther has gradually revealed itself to be more theatrical than televisual, with Shakespearean flaws and tropes sending characters spiralling as unpicked threads rapidly unravel. If you watch Luther on these terms and don’t hold it to account for its lack of ‘realism’, you’ll have a grand time with it.
Like Sherlock, it also sets up a pretty damn good cliffhanger that makes me rue that I just missed the first episode of series 2 on ABC iView. Luther isn’t the rich, complex work we might expect for Elba after The Wire, but what could ever live up to the standard set by that show? Also easy to forget is that despite Elba’s naturally grand presence, his Wire character Stringer Bell was stoic and contained, not like Luther at all. So Elba is in fact stretching – he just plays an angry, explosive guy exceptionally well, and he makes Luther a pretty absorbing few hours even if it’s not revolutionary.