Blightyvision: “Luther”

Created by Neil Cross
Starring Idris Elba, Warren Brown, and Ruth Wilson

Well, cripes.  Here we come full-circle.  “Luther” was the subject of my very first Wibbly-Watchlist, and I was fortunate enough to get my peepers on it as it came out, thus making it the newest (and likely most relevant) thing I’ve reviewed yet on this blog.  It’s one of the most recent in the long line of crime dramas (or is that “procedural dramas”? Still having one hell of a time with that term) turned out by UK television in an attempt to compete with imported cop shows.  And as usual, it has to go the extra mile — and add an extra twist — to do so.  Here, while advertised as a “reverse detective story” in the style of “Columbo,” I noticed that the true difference between this and others of its genre is the fact that it is, well, downright disturbing.

Idris Elba of “The Wire” plays the title role, a detective recently off leave who falls not so much in the “broody” category as he does in the “volatile.”  He has a genuine obsessive interest in the criminals he tracks, challenging even Rose Teller (a strong performance by Saskia Reeves), the DSU who fought to bring Luther back into her department.  Also turning in one of the stronger performances of the series is Steven Mackintosh as DCI Ian Reed, a character whose role in the story develops into true spoiler area as the series progresses.

The dramatic focus of the show switches between Luther’s struggle to do his job and his desire to fix his relationship with estranged wife Zoe (Indira Varma of “Rome” and “Torchwood”), who has left him for another man (Mark North, played by Eighth Doctor and Withnail’s “I” Paul McGann).  The brief glimpses into Zoe and Mark’s relationship — and Luther’s attempted return to Zoe — are irritatingly short for a time, but expand as the show continues.

On that note, there really was not enough of Mark and Zoe in the plot until it was, as it were, “too late” (though I shan’t detail how).  Mark spent most of the series exhibiting an impressive level of tolerance I’ve only ever seen in the cat who shares a house with my friend’s four-year-old daughter.  I found myself wishing throughout pretty much every episode that he’d finally just snap and trash the set like I felt he’d earned every right to given his part in the love triangle.  (Nor shall I reveal whether I got my wish.)  The true disappointment here was Varma.  I’ve been occupying myself watching “Rome” recently, and her performance as Niobe is impressive.  I know she has it in her to turn in a good performance, but Zoe seemed flat and unsympathetic — not at all what I would expect from this actress.  Whether it was intentional or not, I found myself wishing Mark was far too good for her and should drop her like a hot pimiento.

The true show-stealer, though, was Ruth Wilson as the downright creepy Alice.  The first of Luther’s foes, she becomes a permanent fixture in the series, his attempts to snare her in her own lies and bring her in serving as a major subplot.  Turnabout is fair play for her, and she becomes the glue that holds the two sides of the series together — some of the best scenes in the series are between Alice and Mark, who have an unexpected sort of “surely there must be fanfic” chemistry.  But Wilson and Elba opposite each other is a screen-filling experience; even though some of the mysteries-of-the-week can feel a bit lacking, there’s always their battle of wits to hold everything together.

If you can stand flat-out disturbing psychological drama, this is worth a watch — though it is my obligation to tell our readers that this ends on a cliffhanger. A bad, disgusting, utterly unfair one.  Word is that the series will continue before much longer, but it you have a low tolerance for anticipation, it might behoove you to put off viewing of this ’til the second series is closer at hand.

“Luther” will be airing on BBC America later this year, with DVD releases likely to follow … also, okay, hang on, can someone please tell me what that thing is that Alice keeps chewing on?  Is it a Tootsie Pop?  A hatpin?  Seriously, this has been bugging me for months.