January 10, 2019
Drop What You’re Doing and Watch ‘Luther’
In the script for the first episode of Neil Cross’s noir crime drama Luther, John Luther is described as “implacable” with “eyes that burn with lunacy and murder.” Of all the actors who come to mind upon hearing this description Idris Elba, the famously charismatic British actor/DJ most recently crowned Sexiest Man Alive, would probably come in dead last. Yet, Elba is the perfect embodiment of this tenacious detective. So much so, in fact, that his performance as Luther has won him a full shelf’s worth of awards including a Screen Actors Guild Award, a Golden Globe Award, an NAACP Image Award, and a Critics Choice Award.
As the name of Cross’s show suggests, it has never much concerned itself with the by-the-numbers storytelling tropes that typically define criminal procedurals but rather on the titular detective. Detective Chief Inspector Luther is a homicide detective who works in the Serious Crimes Unit (in later seasons renamed Serious and Serial) of the London Metropolitan Police. Luther is London’s guardian. Shots of him in his signature gray wool coat, a singular silhouette, looming over the city or standing in the darkened doorway of a crime scene look like they’re pulled straight from comic book panels of other tormented heroes like Gotham’s dark knight. The BBC has even riffed on this aesthetic choice by turning the television series into a graphic novel. Luther’s London isn’t a compilation of glamour shots of landmarks like Big Ben or The London Eye. It’s grim. Luther spends most of his time driving through a city that perfectly encapsulates the highs and lows of industrialization; glitzy high rises sit alongside neglected buildings that serve as warning signs of impending urban decay. Even when the sun is out it isn’t a warm yellow but dulled, as if it were a co-conspirator helping to shield criminals from the light of day.
Cross envisioned Luther as a descendant of other accomplished fictional detectives like Sherlock Holmes or Columbo, with the latter also serving as a template for the show’s structure. Like Columbo, Luther upends the standard plotting of a detective show by beginning with the crime-of-the-week either already committed or in progress and the perpetrator’s identity revealed. The real meat of the episode is Luther’s search for and capture of the perpetrator. Luther and his team—Benny (Michael Smiley) the tech guru, Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley) the boss, and a revolving protégé-of-the-season—need to process crimes like any other investigative team by working up a criminal profile and doing some leg work. But whereas this process is central to shows like Criminal Minds, where the profilers in the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit do deep dives into criminal psychology, Luther’s viewers are treated to a condensed version of this work. That’s largely due to the fact that Luther possesses a keen eye for deduction that unlike Holmes and his impossibly finely attuned senses, seems to plausibly be the result of his years of experience on the job. Luther has an almost native understanding of London’s criminal underworld, can intuit the impulses of the most depraved of the city’s offenders, and has contacts on both sides of the law who help him keep his solve rate high—for a price. This expedited processing allows the bulk of each episode to revolve around Luther and his incredibly complicated personal life.
A look into the psyche of our detective yields fascinating results. He’s reckless but not fearless, he doesn’t believe in God but he believes in evil; he has a strict and idiosyncratic sense of morality that both makes him a staunch protector of victims and an egregiously deviant copper. Luther absorbs so much of the darkness he’s confronted with on the job but he is a master at duplicity, hiding away his most inner thoughts and sharing only brief glimpses at the grief and anger that plague him over the seasons. He isn’t alone on his mission but that doesn’t stop him from acting like it; he works hard to maintain emotional distance from people and regularly charges into dangerous situations without the mandated backup. This character-driven narrative structure also allows the show to take greater risk with its secondary characters. Like Game of Thrones, Luther isn’t afraid to sacrifice these characters throughout the seasons which, while frustrating for fans who are used to rooting for their favorites among the team, is a boon to the show because it puts real stakes on every scene. Unlike other crime shows that like to resolve their chases with flashy action sequences, Luther (either for budgetary reasons or stylistic ones or both) generally foregoes the many-man tactical response for a pared down showdown between Luther and the episode’s villain. This brings the tension to a real boiling point, thrilling viewers who know that when a gun goes off in Luther, it hits its target. This unsentimental and realistic storytelling ensures that deaths are final, which also means it’s the rare crime show where deaths really matter.
Cross recently told Variety that he draws inspiration from his own neuroses when constructing the show’s horde of depraved killers, all of whom are as clever as they are deranged. “I never write about what I want to do to other people,” Cross explains, “I always write about what I am scared other people will do to me.” The show’s killers have thus far included sexual deviants, twin killers, a vigilante, and a cannibal. By preying on our universal fears—the monster under the bed, noises in the attic—the show guarantees an animated response from fans. In fact, Luther has developed a reputation for making people afraid of seemingly banal everyday activities like outdoor photography, filling up gas, selling items on classified ad sites like Craigslist (Gumtree in the UK), attending therapy, or taking the bus home. One fan tweeted a summation of the show’s cultural impact: “#Luther is changing the shape of the UK quicker than the government. As of today, the night bus is no longer used and no one is selling second hand goods anymore. Cheers @BBCOne.”
A hallmark of the noir genre is the character of the femme fatale who goes toe-to-toe with its hero. On Luther, she’s the secret sauce that elevates the show from good to great. Ruth Wilson plays the oddly beloved psychopath Alice Morgan, a physicist first introduced in the show’s premiere episode as the killer behind the death of her parents and their family dog. Luther is called to investigate the crime but is both frustrated and intrigued to learn that she has committed a near-perfect murder and left no actionable evidence that she’d even done it. Luther and Alice share the same complicated dynamic as Sherlock and Moriarty if those two also had unresolved sexual tension simmering between them. She’s clearly violent, but also beguiling. She’s measured and tactful and despite being a psychopath who’s incapable of experiencing empathy for other humans, has a gift for zeroing in on exactly what makes people—especially Luther—tick. When he shows up to interrogate her Alice is calm and invites him into her office near a picture of a black hole she has framed on her wall. As she stares into its dark recesses, a sinister grin spreads across her face and she gleefully explains to Luther why she thinks the scientific phenomenon is an example of pure evil, “something that drags you in, crushes you, makes you nothing.” Their relationship has always escaped definition. Over the course of the show’s five seasons, the cat-and-mouse dynamic dissolves and eventually gives way to begrudging respect and an unlikely allyship. But one thing is clear, everytime Alice appears in Luther’s life, enticing him to either kiss her or kill her, she drags him closer toward his own destruction.
Unlike Britain’s other crime dramas, Luther improves with each passing season. It’s mercilessness where death is concerned staves off character bloat, and it has cherry-picked some of the best elements of noir fiction; a mesmerizing femme fatale, strikingly bleak visuals that showcase the chaos, corruption, and depravity lurking just beneath London’s cool exterior. Alongside award-worthy performances from the island’s top talent, Luther is blessed with an endlessly watchable lead whose acting choices always reveal the most interesting emotional layers of the show’s flawed but resolute hero. As Luther, Elba compellingly persists through feelings of alienation, guilt, world-weariness, and rage to complete the seemingly endless (and at times hopeless) task of saving those around him. It’s a smart, slick, brutal, and addictive recipe for a television show that has rightfully resonated with fans.