The opening credit sequence to BBC America’s Luther feels more like the start to a Bond film than a typical TV police procedural. It’s a stylish, geometric collage synched to a lush Massive Attack song, serving as an indicator that writer Neil Cross (an MI-5 staff writer) has set his sights not on a realistic police drama, but on something more akin to pure escapism. At that, Luther definitely succeeds. It’s well-crafted, compelling trash that pits swaggering London homicide detective John Luther (Idris Elba) against an array of highly intelligent psychotics.
It’s a good thing that Luther is played by the first-rate Elba (best known as drug-dealer Stringer Bell from The Wire), because the character is saddled with an array of hackneyed traits: he’s an embittered divorcee still in love with his wife (Indira Varma); he doesn’t respond well to authority figures; he plays by his own rules; he becomes obsessed with the criminals he pursues; and in one particularly overdone scene, he stands on the edge of a roof, wondering aloud what it would be like to just fall to his death. But Elba doesn’t just navigate this lazy writing; he barrels through it, creating the most watchable TV detective since Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennyson on Prime Suspect.
Part of Elba’s appeal is his pure physicality. Like a young Sean Connery, his catlike walk is both graceful and menacing, but he’s at his best when he simply sits and listens (something he does fairly often in interrogation scenes). Faced with an adversary, he comes across both intensely focused and manic at the same time, as though he might pounce at any moment.
In the pilot episode of the series, a genius-level sociopath, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), brutally slays her parents. Luther knows she’s guilty, and she knows he knows, but he can’t prove it. They form a relationship, mostly predicated on Morgan’s growing fascination with Luther, but the feelings are also reciprocated. Luther is intrigued by the monstrous Morgan, even as she invades his life, threatening his ex-wife and prying into his past. Aware of her extreme intelligence, Luther begins soliciting her help while investigating other cases. If Luther is an unhinged Bond, then Morgan is his lipstick-wearing Blofeld.
If all of this sounds faintly ludicrous, it is. Morgan represents a burgeoning cliché: serial killer as hero, or, at the least, serial killer as charismatic force. She’s the latest in a line of descendents from Hannibal Lecter to Jigsaw to Dexter. We are led to believe there is something faintly honorable about these characters, and that their extreme intelligence justifies their slaughter of those who are “beneath” them. There’s something distasteful about this archetype, but Wilson, a canny actress, rises above the material. Together they make Luther the most absurd and enjoyable police show to come along in a while.