2010 saw the world and its brother eagerly pause on baited breath for Idris Elba to deliver his portrayal of the dark, dramatic Detective Chief Inspector John Luther. After his hugely popular stint as Russell 'Stringer' Bell on The Wire, Stone in the blockbuster 28 Weeks Later and Beyonce's husband in the dark thriller Obsessed; Elba was entertainment hot property. When the gruff yet loveable crime fighter finally burst onto our screens, if you blinked you might find you'd missed it. BBC's love for petite programming saw the first season indulge us with six episodes while seasons two and three were a mere four episodes long. Writer Neil Cross rose comfortably to the challenge, offering a show that will undoubtedly be remembered for all the right reasons.
Cross spins wild and weird stories of gruesome killers against a less than lush London backdrop. Estates with graffiti tags, and hallways no doubt authentically smelling of pee; Luther's London feels more like Gotham City. It's dank, shadowy and foreboding. Desperately in need of a protector that's capable of taking control, no blushing or shying away. Thankfully the city has Luther. Like Batman he operates in the grey areas of the law, ready and willing to tackle the capital's underbelly.
Opening the first series with a serial killer plummeting to his death while in Luther's custody you'd expect remorse right? Not this guy, when an interrogation goes that tragically wrong, ethics apparently plummet with the unrepentant murderer. A sly smile comes before a shadow of shame casts itself across his features. Was he alone in thinking good riddance? And that's why he's so loved. He's grey, he knows it and he's ashamed to show it. Unless of course we're talking about his wardrobe or his car. Luther should not be as content as he is to ride around in that beaten up Volvo of his. Or should he? Like Poirot's tache or monocle, the car is an extension of his persona. Reliable and uncomplicated, you know it'll get the job done. Without any frills or fancies there's no fussing when an 80s Volvo takes a knock, it handles it with nonchalance. Try to imagine Luther in a Lexus or Mercedes S-class and you'll no doubt cringe. He's made of sterner stuff, cut from a much coarser cloth. He's a tweed meets office reception carpeting kinda guy. That signature jacket seems to cover a multitude of Luther's sins. The fashion savvy in the audience, muttered uh-uh throughout the series; wishing there was something, anything to cover the sin that was the jacket. All can be forgiven because of his ability to crescendo an episode and series like a boss. His emotional complexity and pure genius going a long way, compensating for the purposeful, (albeit painful) fifty layers of grey he chooses to wear.
The final episode of the second season saw another fantastical tale from Cross play out in wonderfully dramatic Lutheran fashion. Russian Roulette was played at its most captivating. The slow motion L’oreal moments as he emptied the petrol over his face, were perfectly executed. For a brief spell, we forgot that he was about to get his ass set on fire by a crackpot criminal; relishing in the way he shook his lashes like a Baywatch babe shakes her tresses.
Like all well written shows, Cross teases his audience with just the right amount of tension and then delivers just as the pressure peaks. It's a little disconcerting that with a series like this and US show Dexter; for the writer to deliver, someone has to die. Unlike the blood thirst of Dexter, Luther’s victims aren't hunted, their deaths a mere by-product we’ve come to expect and dare I say desire?
The success of the show isn't just down to Luther and his moral ambiguity. He's got the wonderful Michael Smiley, playing Benny silver, the department’s techie who although doesn’t get a lot of screen love, plays his poker-face part perfectly. Dermot Crowley as the Detective Superintendent who try as he may to keep the headstrong Luther grounded, ends up letting him get away with utter liberties. To love or hate DCI Erin Gray? Played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, how can you love anyone that dares say a word against the butter wouldn’t melt Luther?
At some point however, we have to accept that the Lutheran way is questionable; yet to hate Gray is to call into question the premise of the entire show. How long can you meander with ‘the ends justifying the means’ notion? Shoving the uncomfortable thought swiftly out of mind, we welcome the charming Warren Brown who plays his loyal junior partner Justin Ripley. Their relationship is tried and tested and when it comes to the crunch, Ripley has got his back. Hack a senior officers computer and erase records to stop a snooping Gray dead in her track? Yes he will.
It was a shock to everyone when the third and final series saw him killed off. Far from signifying an end, it took the show out of its uncomfortable corner. Finally the jacket comes off and it’s a given that Luther as we once knew him no longer exists. Sure he could simply go and buy another one but what’s a symbol if it’s so easily replaced? Killing Ripley laid the series to rest, drawing the show towards it’s intended destination- the silver screen.
Of course there are the naysayers who complain the show tried too hard; that there was too much story and not enough show. Perhaps the punchy pace was Neil Cross' intentional layup for the movie to go deeper. The film is set to be a prequel to the series. For those that wanted the bone, the marrow and the flesh of Luther’s life to marinade in the story for longer, they'll undoubtedly be satisfied. Luther’s an established cult classic that’ll be dusted off and pulled out whenever it's time to reel off the list of top British dramas or detective shows.
Published on December 31st, 2018. Written by Onome Okwuosa (2014) for Television Heaven.