Like CSI on really unhappy steroids (and that’s a good thing): Luther

With the recent-ish (as far as the U. S. goes) announcement of the fifth and final season of the BBC show Luther, it seemed like as good a time as any to revisit a post I wrote several years ago when I was utterly hooked on it. Two BIG thumbs up.

The following post originally appeared on Geek Force Network, September 13, 2013.

© BBC Drama Productions (source)

If you’ve watched any television, ever, you know that procedural dramas are a dime a dozen. From Dragnet and Columbo to CSI and Law & Order, TV schedules are filled to the brim with displays of crime-solving action, suspense, and wit. I like a good murder mystery as much as anyone; and over the years, millions of other viewers, myself included, have watched the good guys (usually) get the bad buys time and time again. CSI (the original) used to be my show, but since it made some poor casting choices, I’ve moved onto the likes of NCIS and Bones when I need a little melodramatic fix.

One of the things that make these shows appealing to wide audiences is their humor. Folks who work in all sectors of law enforcement no doubt have their own sets of inside jokes to keep the mood light when it should be anything but. And while the stuff on TV can range from hokey to farcical, there’s often a thin veil of comedy surrounding all the death and destruction. In a way, this describes a sizable portion of American prime time, broadcast television. The really serious stuff is saved for cable. And I’ve run the gamut there too, from Sons of Anarchy to Breaking Bad. But Luther. Oh man…Luther breaks the mold when it comes to crime procedurals.

What is it about British TV and their knack for successfully throwing all their emotional eggs into one basket? Anyone this side of the pond who’s spent even a little time with British comedies on PBS or Masterpiece Theatre or dramas on BBC America, knows that when British shows are funny, they are sometimes devastatingly funny; and when they’re dramatic, they are sometimes über dramatic. The crime drama Luther is über dramatic to the nines. It’s fast-paced, intense, and completely brilliant. And I’m hooked.

Also, Idris Elba eating ice cream? Hell, I'd watch him collate papers. © BBC Drama Productions (source)
Also, Idris Elba eating ice cream? Hell, I’d watch him collate papers. © BBC Drama Productions (source)

Without getting too spoliery, John Luther (Idris Elba) is a genius/compulsive detective chief inspector in the Serious Crime Unit (later Serious and Serial Crime Unit), who’s great at solving crimes but terrible at controlling his emotions. He is his job — murder and sociopaths define his life. He’s not a “dirty cop” per se, but, as the show puts it, there’s a difference between being dirty and getting dirty to solve a case. Luther walks a very fine line between the two. But he’s not just your stereotypical angry detective. His range of emotions extends far into the well of love, caring, and sympathy, almost to his detriment. And though Elba is a tall, imposing figure, Luther’s appearance does little to save him from getting his ass kicked more than a few times. He genuinely cares for his family and friends, but he holds some rather questionable friendships. And he occasionally goes to unusual lengths to maintain some of those bonds. He’s the kind of character you wholly root for while questioning his methods and motives.

So what does Luther do better than many crime dramas? The drama. It’s rare when I find myself absolutely reeling as a show’s credits roll (Breaking Bad is the only example that comes to mind right now), but the conclusion of each episode of Luther has left me in awe of or numb in disbelief over what had just occurred. The criminal acts depicted in the show are often downright scary and atrocious, and the brutality never seems to let up. The best way I can put it is that, you know how lots of American crime dramas often end with a somber or humorous “that was one helluva case” epilogue? Well, Luther mostly forgoes that in favor of punching viewers right in the emotional gullet. You don’t get that comfortable feeling of “it’s over;” rather you’re left with feelings of wonderment, paranoia, and exhaustion. It’s quite a fitting tribute to John Luther himself.

That's some serious walking. SERIOUS. © BBC Drama Productions (source)
That’s some serious walking. SERIOUS. © BBC Drama Productions (source)

This isn’t to say that Luther is completely devoid of any fun. Granted, its moments of levity are so few and far between that they literally light up the screen whenever they occur, and you wonder for a moment if you’re watching the same show you were moments before. The folks who make Luther aren’t afraid to show you the reality, be it heartbreaking or lighthearted, that is John Luther’s life. They aren’t afraid to tell you that sometimes bad things happen to good people. They aren’t afraid to present complex and intriguing characters only to have them killed off prematurely. They aren’t afraid to show killers as friends and friends as killers. And Luther himself probably doesn’t want it all on display, yet he’s only too happy to have you watch.

Though Luther is still a young production (its third miniseries just ended), its proficiency as a procedural can’t be denied. While Elba carries much of the show, credit is certainly due to the amazing supporting cast that keeps each story’s wheels spinning and in (or out of) sync. On a side note, British cops don’t carry guns and neither do Luther and his team. It’s incredibly refreshing to watch these detectives use an effective combination of brains and brawn to get things done. And whenever they do come into possession of guns, the drama is only heightened. I can’t recommend Luther highly enough, whether you’re a crime drama geek or casual mystery-lover. You can find it just about anywhere — BBC America, Netflix [ed: not anymore], Amazon, On Demand [ed: um, maybe?], etc. Just be sure to watch it when you’re in a pleasant mood and ready to have a crazy good time with some crazy bad (and mad) people.

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