There are no spoilers in this review until the clearly marked part toward the bottom.

Early this summer I watched through the two seasons of Luther produced by the BBC so far.  I highly recommend it, though it’s not for everyone.

The key is that it’s not really a straight crime drama, though it comes across that way at first.  Trying to read it that way, the plots are often too ridiculous, particularly in the villains.  Kind of like the more cartoony end of the Bones spectrum but without the overt goofyness, a non-combo which doesn’t necessarily work well.

What I realized though is it’s actually best viewed as essentially a live action comic book, with just slightly larger than life characters and plots.  In that light the darkness and serious tones fit in with just enough latitude granted for the more outlandish villains.  Following the grand traditions of the big bat himself, Luther’s superhero powers in that view are quiet and understated, consisting solely of preternatural intuition about people and plans, a certain obliviousness to pain, a so-far somewhat under-specified haunted core, and a dose of moral ambiguity.  This view also helps resolve the limited standing effects of a number of plotlines—comic book cities and characters can bounce right back from horrors and events that would cause years-long trauma in reality.

Either way, the first couple episodes are solid but not remarkable.  Around episode five of the first season though it really starts to pick up.  From there the overall story arch makes a few surprising leaps and turns that give it some heft.  Most of the regular characters also start to gather depth, both in background and what they’re doing on screen.  Their interactions and the narrative they build up start to take on reasonable complexity and raise good questions.

“Are you serious?! *That’s* the plot?!!”

In some sense it’s unfortunate, given its strong prevalence in the current TV scene, that most of those revolve around the question of how far the law can or should be bent in the service of “the greater good.”  At what point is a line crossed?  This angle is kind of cliched at this point, and has even been covered by some of the actors here previously, but the show puts enough of a twist on this if you look deep enough to stand ok on its own.  More on this under the spoiler alert below.

A big part of that is exactly those actors.  Idris Elba does a great job portraying the titular character, giving a bit more dimensionality to the role than the writing alone probably warrants.  Ruth Wilson also gives a captivating, creepy yet sympathetic take as the essentially, arguably chaotic-neutral force of Alice Morgan.  The smaller roles are also played well and engrossing to watch.

Finally, the package is wrapped up very nicely.  The soundtrack is frequently brilliant, and I’ve since had a number of the songs on heavy rotation.  Standouts include Breathe Me by Sia and Flash by Joan as Policewoman.  A lot of the symbology is also really good as the show goes on.  Without revealing anything, toward the season two finale there is a simple, breathtaking overhead shot as Luther—quietly seething, self-destructive, apocalypse within—walks down an empty street alongside painted garage door warnings to “Keep Clear.”

All in all, I’m not sure how long Luther will stand the test of time, but it’s definitely worth watching.  I look forward to a third season as well as the possible Alice Morgan spin-off.  The BBC just keeps knockin’ em dead!

“Listen, Alice, I’m not sure about this.” “Oh, I’m sure!”

Spoilers Ahead!  For Serious!

Those who haven’t watched yet shouldn’t read this, but these are what really sold me on this show:

  • The soundtrack.
  • The sequence described above of Luther walking down the street, both that overhead shot and the moment when Luther pours the gas all over himself.  That was incredible!
  • That the show was willing to kill off Zoe.
  • The continued inclusion and development of Mark’s character in the aftermath of that event.
  • Alice and Luther’s interaction.

The last point is what saves Luther in the early going from falling into the currently somewhat standard cliche of cops overreaching.  Alice is a true genius.  Luther is a true genius.  They’re so gifted, so capable of reading situations, that they’re almost superhuman.  If you’re superhuman, what do you care about humans?  Why do you care?  Luther and Alice are essentially, arguably both in an amoral space where emotion feeds some basic point—e.g., I hate my parents!—and cold calculation takes over from there.  Luther perhaps doesn’t care so much about justice, he cares about solving problems.  If that’s your prime concern then the law and rules of conduct have little meaning, so of course he’s willing to do things I’m not comfortable with.  But yet, they do have some connection to humanity.  Alice, after all, hated her parents enough to kill them and her dog (!), and hate requires an emotion, a connection.  Luther clearly has some devotion to Zoe, him and Alice have a connection, and he clearly cares about Ripley and several other more minor characters.  So they’re not quite free of humanity either.  All of this is a great space to explore, and it helps a lot that its done through the quietly simmering, sizzling interaction between Alice and Luther.