|'Of much more interest than the Luther character is his nemesis-cum-ally, Alice (Ruth Wilson) who operates somewhere between Dr. Watson and Dexter Morgan.'|
Christmas is the time for binge-watching box sets and so, sans internet, thanks to a house move, I picked up the first three seasons of Luther on DVD for a long-awaited catch-up with the BBC's current flagship detective.
My face value findings are unlikely to give Sherlock's powers of deduction reason to worry. Idris Elba is a man with presence. Though his acting ability, particularly in Season One, may not be the type of thing that will regularly trouble awards season, he often doesn't need it. As someone in the background shouts 'LOOOOOOFFEEEEEER' for the umpteenth time, Elba blunders in, makes a calm assessment/punches someone and departs in a similar whirlwind manner. You don't need to be Olivier to do this and he knows it, as do the creative team. Detective shows of the nature of Luther are often less about the lead character (despite residual appearances) more about how satisfyingly familiar tropes and motifs can be presented. A cookie-cutter of a protagonist (strongly masculine, passionate, violent when the plot needs him to be) allows you to do that without significantly detracting from the stories you tell.
Of much more interest from a character point of view through Season One to Season Three is Luther's nemesis-cum-ally, Alice (Ruth Wilson) who operates somewhere between Dr. Watson and Dexter Morgan. Outed in the Season One pilot as a killer Luther can't catch, Alice morphs slowly into antihero through a muddled first season which knows that it's on to something with the character but can't quite tell what it is yet. Season Two develops her to a far better degree (she starts within a mental hospital) and by Season Three she's become full on violent, sub-superhero avenger, attempting to cut down threats to Luther with all of the clinical execution of Batman.
Meanwhile, the show as a whole does undergo significant change. Chopped from a bloated six episodes to just four for Season Two and Three, the change gives Luther raison d'etre without mandating the focus which it occasionally needs. Season One fails to find focus until far too late in the game when it opts for Luther's personal life, by which time, we've been treated to a show that was already struggling to stand out from other police-em-ups. Season Two though introduces a split episode structure, with Luther solving two cases during the four episode run. The cases at the start of Season Two and Season Three (a masked killer and a killer who dresses people up in masks, respectively) are the highlights here: both are as scary as they need to be, with compelling villains that only become less compelling as Luther beings to unravel their psyche in the second of each seasons' episodes. In the first case from Season Two, the killer is far weaker than he appears behind the mask: a satisfying real life parable perhaps, but hardly one which makes for a compelling Luther victory. In Season Three, an iconic moment of the killer slipping out from underneath someone's bed is made so only because the rest of his attempts on life are so passingly mundane. A 'moment' in an attic during the next segment does get admittedly close, but in all honesty, by that point, we've entered the realm of ludicrously stupid victims and the killer once again loses some of his threat.
Other changes have mixed impact. Saskia Reeves is out as Luther's too-archetypal boss after Season One, which feels a wise choice, but her replacement Dermot Crowley is basically a like-for-like movement; one person keeping faith in Luther as he wavers onto the darker side of the law in place of the other. Aimee-Ffion Edwards appears as an Alice-lite teenager entrapped into the sex trade. Her characterisation screams 'alternative' a little too mightily, but you can't deny she's entertaining. What a shame then that, after she has been built up in Season Two, there's no trace of her in Season Three. Anton Saunders as a growly semi-retired Glaswegian internal affairs man is horrible, as is the arc in Season Three which involes he and Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird). At one point an arrest is made by the two characters which defies logic, reason and Luther; hardly a trifecta the show should be going for.
The truth emerges that, whilst Season Two and Three are tighter and better than their predecessor, they are still fairly average cop show productions with little that will stick in the memory after they have finished. Luther is a perfectly decent police serial, but this has pretty much all been done before and the absence of elevation here relegates Luther to just the one DVD watch through. Better, if less regular, BBC options are available (Sherlock's later runs) and even better than that can be found further afield (True Detective: Season One).
|Luther: Season One|
|Luther: Season Two|
|Luther: Season Three|