I’ve spent the last month addicted to one show, and just one show- Luther. Created by Neil Cross (who I previously knew as the writer of two Doctor Who stories in Series 7), the show revolves around DCI John Luther, played by the brilliant Idris Elba, solving the most messed up and twisted crimes in London. Aided by his police colleagues and haunted by past actions, Luther navigates his way through 5 brilliantly written, expertly paced seasons of utterly compelling television.
I’ve been interested in checking out this show for a while, as I’ve liked Idris Elba in other properties such as Pacific Rim and the Marvel Cinematic Universe (where he is severely underutilised) and with the BBC pushing Season 5 at the front of their advertising over New Year’s I went to Netflix and dove into the dark world of Luther. Warning- going straight from Brooklyn Nine-Nine to Luther, two very different shows about police detectives, in a matter of days results in a huge tonal whiplash. With that said- yes, this show is dark. Very much so, and I don’t recommend it to everyone. If you like your dramas to have a bit of brevity, then Luther is not the show for you. For someone like me though, Luther is right up my alley. Another note is that the seasons are very short. Americans like to tease the Brits for the short seasons of British TV shows but Luther takes this to the extreme. The most a season has ever gotten (Season 1) is six episodes whilst Season 4 is two episodes. However, us Brits also take pride in the idea of “quality over quantity” and Luther is the definition of that show.
Anyway, enough background. Let’s dive into why this show is just so good. If I was to give a two word summation of why Luther is awesome- Idris. Elba. It’s a cliche at this point but please cast Elba as everyone. The Doctor. Bond. Jon Stewart. Ghastly Bespoke. Anyone. He is such a force of nature in Luther. It’s very hard playing a character with a huge amount of flaws and a pessimistic attitude but Elba nails it. It helps that Neil Cross gives this character endless depth and complexities that are complemented with the phenomenal performance. Luther is an endlessly compelling lead and a fascinating character- he is unable to escape the darkness of his job yet views it as his duty to protect. This fatal flaw results in his unorthodox methods frequently causing him to clash with his superiors and endangering the case yet he always comes out on top and captures those responsible. His victories are not celebrated though as he simply moves on to the next job, caught in a paradox of wanting a normal life but giving himself a moral duty to stop crime whatever the cost. If you know me then you know I love dark and morally deep characters who are ultimately heroic but often harsh- the Eleventh Doctor, Malcolm Reynolds, Jim Hopper, Skulduggery Pleasant, Rick Sanchez, Batman… John Luther is one of those characters. Despite his darkness his compassion and sense of duty is his most important attribute.
No protagonist is complete without a good counterpoint, and the Master to Luther’s Doctor is Alice Morgan, played to perfection by Ruth Wilson. The series begins as Luther and his partner Ripley investigate the double homicide of Alice’s parents, but the detective soon figures out that it was her who committed it. The first episode is a brilliant and intense game of cat and mouse as one side tries to prove the guilt of the other. Alice is eventually free to go but she isn’t done with London’s finest detective yet- as the first series progresses we see this sociopathic manipulator try to help Luther and get under his skin for no real purpose other than to give Luther an incentive to get back with his wife. As events spiral out of control, a different side of Alice emerges and we see that all her actions are defined by a lack of human empathy and a desire for purpose- to be Luther’s enemy. Luther sees this and tries to help her give up, but by the time we reach Series 5 a very different dynamic has emerged. These two characters are the backbone of the entire series and they are both equally fascinating. Personally, as much I agree with Idris Elba as the Doctor, we’ve seen the kind of incarnation he would play before. I would like to see Ruth Wilson in the role instead- I can imagine a McCoy-esque Doctor who no one can really trust and she’ll be a very unique version of the character. As long as Neil Cross is writing, I think we’d have a great era. And we could have Idris Elba as the Master, in a wonderful twist on the dynamic they have in Luther.
I cannot stress just how good the show looks- it’s the BBC pulling all the stops to create a familiar yet warped version of London. The direction and production values supplement the wonderful writing and it’s a cinematic show in the extreme. The show is also blessed with a great range of supporting characters. Throughout the series we get Justin Ripley, the moral compass to Luther’s darkness, Luther’s wife Zoe and her new boyfriend Mark North (played by none other than Paul McGann!) and the quirky and lovable Benny, Luther’s go-to gadget man. The show is also host to a viciously nasty and great rogue’s gallery. The first series presented a series of standalone crimes connected primarily through Alice and Luther’s domestic life collapsing, whilst Series 2 and 3 have two two-part stories each, whilst Series 4 and 5 are a single story each. Each crime is twisted and the perpetrators are varied and range from the completely sympathetic to the monstrous. From a sniper assassinating police officers to a serial killer desperate to restore Britain’s crime mythology akin to Jack the Ripper to two brothers who kill seemingly at random, the plots of each and every Luther story are excellently layered and fascinating to watch. The stories also have an overarching narrative of Luther’s own personal conflicts and enemies trying to prevent him from doing the right thing, and there is nothing more satisfying than Luther fighting off all his personal demons and saving the day.
The genius of this show lies with the fact that outside of a handful of the murderers there are no real heroes or villains. Alice isn’t the arch-enemy to Luther’s mighty hero and this applies to the criminals too. In my favourite arc, a vigilante called Thomas Marwood becomes an internet hero after he states his intentions to kill the criminals he deems to have escaped the law. Whilst his actions are bad, his motivations are honest and well intentioned. This story also features Alice at her most Doctor like. One of the reasons I don’t usually get interested in true crime shows is that there’s only so much you can do before it gets repetitive by focusing purely on the crimes. Luther however focuses on how these events affect people and what motivates them, which I find more interesting than just endless murders. What the show never forgets is that Luther is not an infallible hero with no flaws who is perfect at everything- he is just as flawed and psychologically broken as the people he pursues.
In short, Luther is a show that has me utterly captivated. I don’t know the future of the show (Idris Elba and Neil Cross have both said a film is in development rather than another series) but I’m behind whatever comes next. With two of TV’s most compelling lead roles, fantastic plots and wonderful writing, Luther is short but sweet. If you can take unrelenting bleakness and high octane drama, then give it a watch. It’s one of the best TV shows to come out of the BBC. And please, please, someone let Idris Elba be in a good leading role in Hollywood.