The best TV cop show you're not watching returns tonight: Idris Elba's Luther on BBC America
What can you say about a detective series which begins with its hero putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger?
Brilliant. Probing. Dark. Unflinching.
But Russian roulette is just the start of the shadowy turns ahead on a new season of Luther, the amazingly textured and stark drama which earned star Idris Elba one of two Emmy nominations this year.
In a TV world filled with antiheroes, Elba’s Detective Chief Inspector John Luther may be the most complex; a driven genius gifted with an ability to understand and predict the most savage criminals. But it's a talent matched only his inability to do the same with people in his personal life.
What Luther really offers, surprisingly, is a long, bruising treatise on the cost of breaking the rules – even for London’s most brilliant, crime-solving “copper.” Last season opened with an act which has haunted him since the series’ beginning; the decision to let a particularly depraved murderer fall to his death after a chase.
For the rest of that season, the culprit lay in a coma, ready to destroy Luther’s career with a single word -- a sword of Damocles adding pressure to every moment. This season, Luther feels compelled to help a murderer's daughter, even when it’s obvious her mother has double crossed him into a serious predicament with powerful mobsters.
Living in shabby apartment with peeling paint, Luther is sleepwalking through his personal life -- devastated by the loss of a wife who had already left him thanks to his obsession with catching murderers. Now, Luther's marking time until he can leave life for good, trying to train a young detective to take his place a right a few more wrongs before the end.
Elba inhabits Luther as the ultimate reluctant hero; a damaged, razor sharp detective with a passion for justice and a knowing idealist’s bleeding heart. He stalks through scenes with shoulders rolling and a bit of swagger, steeled for the world of awfulness he knows will come from his own actions. Downplayed in the second season, Luther's relationship with psychopathic killer Alice Morgan (a transcendent Ruth Wilson), who becomes a Hannibal Lecter-like confidant in in show's first season, highlights how different this copper's approach could be.
Luther brings it on, cutting any corner and breaking any rule to bring murderers to justice. Because he must.
In the same way Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven provided a longtime western hero’s dissertation on the cost of violence -- even when employed to serve justice -- Luther is the dark story of the price which must be paid when you shrug off the rules to stop a bad guy. Even when you’re right. Even when you save lives. Even when the audience cheers for it, there are consequences.
There are some absurdities here. Luther endures a mobster nailing a spike through his hand with the irritation reserved for a bad migraine. His intuitive ability to guess a murderer’s process is a bit convenient for writers, who can lead characters into a corner and let Luther magically divine the answer.
And my yank ears were tingling trying to keep up with all the British slang flying around.
Still Luther’s new season is a triumph; a reinvention of the murder mystery which actually works, giving television one of its most original characters in the process.