In the two aired series of Luther, a psychological cop drama rapidly becomes more and more unlike any police procedural ever written. Intrigued? Then you should watch Luther.
Let me get this out of the way so y’all don’t have to be bashed over the head with my gay gayness of gay. I have had a crush on Idris Elba for many years, and this is the number one reason that I gave Luther a chance. Oh, I’ll get to see the hottest actor ever speak in his native accent and be a detective? That didn’t take much to convince me.
This review, from this moment on, shall not have a single mention of how hot Idris Elba is. We have so many more things to talk about.
A note about spoilers: Like yesterday, this review will contain no plot spoilers at all, and will not give away the vast majority of minor detail spoilers. I’ll talk about characters, some vague ideas about character growth, and a general idea of the differences between the two series. Even more so than Rubicon, this series is simply not as enjoyable (or shocking) if one knows too much about what it is.
I don’t watch too many police procedurals these days, especially since so many of them are similar, but I did binge Law & Order: SVU when it was first put on Netflix a couple years ago. (Which, by the way, was a terrible idea, only because after three straight weeks of that show, I start to believe I was going to be murdered.) But there’s something that’s inherently fascinating about that kind of storytelling, and it’s why I enjoyed the BBC’s Sherlock update. I like a good mystery and a complex whodunnit. I loved that part of LOST, and there are some damn fine crime dramas that operate with this at their base as well. And I don’t even like saying that it’s some sort of low-brow storytelling, because that doesn’t make sense to me. Just because something is common doesn’t mean it’s necessarily inferior; I think it takes a whole lot of talent to be able to write this sort of stuff.
That being said, procedural dramas rely on a whole lot of tropes that can get pretty exhausting quickly. And it’s okay to like them in spite of this! There’s no problem with that at all. But I’m always looking for television that does things just a tiny bit different, and through the vehicle of Idris Elba’s hotness (OKAY, LAST TIME I MENTION IT, I SWEAR) I stumbled on Luther. Combining elements of Sherlock Holmes with…um…well…Dexter? Maybe a little bit?
And that’s the problem I run into when I try to explain this show to people. Yes, Luther is a show about Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, part of the Serious Crime Unit in London, and yes, there are “serious crimes” that must be solved, and most of them deal with serial killers, and then….then I don’t know how to explain this without spoiling people. I start blathering about how NO, YOU HAVE NO IDEA, IT’S SO MUCH DEEPER THAN THAT, IT’S GOT A STORY ARC BUT IT’S NOT LIKE SCI FI AND THINGS HAPPEN, BUT I CAN’T TELL YOU THEM, DO YOU REALIZE HOW HARD THIS IS FOR ME.
But it’s a sign of how excited I was to watch and experience this show; it constantly surprised me. The writing is solid. The scares are believable. It was disturbing in increasingly pervasive ways. And it surprised me when it transformed (rather quickly, too) into a show that really wasn’tÂ about crime, that wasn’tÂ about the mystery. And it’s truly what LutherÂ does so well: these characters are the real heart of this story, and everything else is simply the canvas by which the writers paint their lives.
Make no mistake: John Luther is the main focus of it all. I find myself falling back on my description of this show being a combination of SherlockÂ and Dexter, but even thatÂ doesn’t fully describe what’s going on. With detective stories, the main detective tends to be hyper-intelligent, possesses a few social quirks, and is never wrong. In Luther, though, the writers tend to either invert that trope, or dismiss it entirely. What if the main character wasÂ brilliant, massively, overwhelmingly brilliant? And what if he possessed an empathy for human suffering and pain that was so intense that it started to hurt? What if that man cared so much about others that he acted out in increasingly irrational and dangerous ways? What if that man wasn’tÂ a beacon of moral goodness, either? What if he fucked up in terrible, disappointing ways? And what if we are instead given a portrait of a brilliant character who is both tormented and uplifted by his mental state?
LutherÂ shows us both sides to Luther’s empathy and his mental illness. (And I won’t qualify or attempt to diagnose what is going on in the man’s mind because that’s fucked up and because it’s never outright confirmed in any blatant way. But it isÂ a very important aspect of his character and the show. Hell, the entire show starts with him returning to work after seven months due to a nervous breakdown and institutionalization.) While we certainly see some of the more frightening moments to John’s characterization (even in the first episode), the show never, ever forgets that this is a human being, not a caricature. When we see John facing depression, it’s not treated as a joke. It is not treated as a silly fad. It is a real thing that happens to him, and the choices he makes to cope with it are real and have real consequences for his own health and for those around him.
And even if John Luther makes up the bulk of what Luther is about, the cast of characters who surround him are a varied group of people who seemÂ like trope-filled examples of what might be familiar to people who have watched police-procedurals. Detective Sergeant Justin Ripley is the newcomer, eager to work with the famed DI Luther; Ian Reed is Luther’s partner-in-crime, always willing to do whatever Luther needs to bend the rules to solve a case; Rose Teller is the exasperated boss who is constantly frustrated by her need to reign John Luther in; Martin Schenk is the intimidating Superintendent who has it out for Luther; Zoe Luther is the wife who cannot put up with her husband’s obsessive behavior.
Does this all sound familiar? Don’t these characters exist in most procedural crime dramas? So I admit to feeling that that first twenty minutes of the first episode was cookie-cutter drama. I didn’t see what angle this was going to take. It was entertaining! And the introduction of Alice Morgan, the best character on the whole show, was intriguing. (I really can’t say much about her because SPOILERS and because she SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS and SPOILERS.) But it wasn’t until a particular monologue/scene at the end of the first episode that I knew I’d stumbled onto something a whole lot more personal than I expected. I don’t want to ignore that this is a cop drama, and LutherÂ never quite escapes that. But in a sense, the show never wantsÂ to. Instead, the writers embrace the environment to show how all of these characters deal with moral challenges, the frustrations of bureaucracy, the emotional attachments that develop over time, and the horrors that might come with what these detectives do.
Now, it’s not The Wire. This really isn’t meant to be a scathing indictment of cop culture, corruption, or organized crime, though there areÂ issues dealing with all three over the course of both series. LutherÂ is and will probably always be about the emotions behind all of this. To me, thatÂ is what separates this from the herd, and what it does have in common with a show like The Wire. We get to peek inside the lives of people who work in violent crime and see how exposure to this sort of thing eats away at them, tears down their moral system, or, in some cases, actually strengthens it.
Yet after all of this, there’s one thing that LutherÂ will stand out to me as: it is, without a doubt, one of the most intense and emotionally draining shows that I have ever seen. As of now, there are only ten full episodes, amounting to just ten hours that we spend with these characters. In a way, the show feels like two miniseries instead of two full seasons, which allows the focus to develop really well over the course of the first six episodes, and then the four that make up series two. But this praise–and I am praising this show for creating a story that is ridiculously harrowing–should also serve as a warning of sorts. I don’t want to send any of you into LutherÂ thinking you’ll watch a slightly disturbing, but rewarding cop drama.
You will not feel like LutherÂ has given you a hug when you are done watching it. You will not feel like the world is a wonderful place. And hell, there is not a trigger warning in the world that could cover what one probably goes through while watching this show. At one point (which I will not tell you when or where or any details), this thingÂ happens that is so revolting and shocking that my voice did this disgusting thing that made it sound like I had just died. The universe that LutherÂ paints becomes increasingly bleak over time, and things ONLY GET WORSEÂ during series two. And perhaps that’s part of the draw of this; I admit to enjoying bleak fiction, and a lot of what I’ve watched is unbearably tense. LIKE ALL OF BATTLESTAR GALACTICAÂ AMIRITE??? So maybe I am biased in my depiction of this show as one that separates itself rather quickly from the formula of most cop shows because the intensity of it, and the emotional attachment that one develops for these characters.
But when I finished that last episode of series two, I felt satisfied. It was a different sensation of satisfaction than I was used to; the show isn’t over yet, and there’s still a lot left to be answered in series three, but I felt like I had gotten to know Schenk, Ripley, and Luther in ways that were unexpected and enriching, because even the smallest characters mattered to this show and mattered to the world that creator Neil Cross had dreamed up.
LutherÂ is available on Netflix Instant and both seasons are on iTunes. Again, it bears repeating, but there is a lotÂ of violence on this show, much of it deeply disturbing, so if you are sensitive to depictions of violence, some mild gore, and torture, I would advise against watching Luther.