“I’ve seen something like this before”, growls Idris Elba in the opening minutes of BBC One’s summer prime-time crime-’em-up. How right he is. Between the fetishistic serial killer, the bloated corpses in concrete tower blocks, and the hardline copper who doesn’t play by the rules, Luther is practically sing-a-long blueprint to the grim-dark world of modern police dramas.
Honestly, if you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to mistake the series for a parody of itself at times. We open with a Michael Mann-style slow-mo montage of SWAT teams, helicopters, and juicy orange gasoline explosions, but with the Miami haze supplanted by Shoreditch drizzle. And instead of the usual R’n’B soundtrack, we get the slightly discordant plink-plonk piano and overly-reverbed strings that one only finds in television dramas (Taken from Mozart’s Requiem for Characters with Regional Accents Looking a Bit Glum). From then on, it’s a the usual two-step of ‘cop with flaws’ and ‘killers with fetishes’ that BBC scriptwriters must be able to do in the sleep by now. There is nothing in the plot or the writing to surprise or excite: every grumble from Luther could easily be plopped into the mouths of DCIs Rebus, Boyd or Wallander, with nothing but a minor regional readjustment.
For the most part, it’s kept interesting by decent cinematography and solid directing; there are plenty of lingering frames of sinister streets, windows, and steaming mugs of tea (Spoiler: untended tea = murder; clearly the small screen psychopathic shibboleth to cinema’s red shirt) that work to nicely ratchet up the tension in what is largely a very mediocre drama. But a General fights with the army he’s given, and the script still yields some laughable clangers despite the best intentions of the production crew. I challenge you not to laugh at the villain’s first appearance in the opening episode: his bizarre wriggling-out-from-under-the-bed-jump-scare (no, really) coupled with the Hammer Horror flare of violin chords practically frames Luther as a pitch-perfect parody of overly serious detective dramas. Alas, the whole thing is played straight, and the litany of ‘gritty’ clichés start to pile up.
Like the aforementioned Rebus, shows like this live or die by their eponymous protagonists (given that there’s sod all else to distinguish between them). So does Idris ‘Pacific Rim’ Elba carry it off? Just. He has no shortage of charisma, and he fits the three-speed role demanded of him (belligerent interrogator/jaded investigator/vulnerable emoter) with ease, but the grumbling Lahn-dan dialect can start to grate, and his trademark gruffness loses much of its impact given the way the other characters appear to be in a contest to out-grim each other. You’ll quickly start to lose track of who’s double-crossing who, and which vulnerable-white-female-murder-victim is which; but that doesn’t really matter here. If you like Elba, and you’ve watched all your Silent Witness box-sets, then go ahead. And beware the tea.
Words: Max Bruges