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Luther: "Episode One"

(Important note: Welcome to my coverage of the six-episode BBC series Luther. I’ll be writing about the show week-to-week, under the usual TV Club assumption that readers will have seen the episodes. However, since this piece will run before the pilot airs, I’m treating it more like a review and going lighter on spoilers. Expect more details in future weeks.)

Though I’m sure he’s proud of the series, Idris Elba has clearly been trying to get a little distance between himself and The Wire, which isn’t easy when you’ve played one of the most memorable characters on The Greatest TV Show Ever™. In interviews, he’s been generous about discussing any other project but that one, and his roles post-Stringer Bell have sought to establish a little range, from his stint as a no-nonsense executive in TV’s The Office to his leading role in the schizo Tyler Perry joint Daddy’s Little Girls. The BBC series Luther gives him his meatiest part since The Wire, and a character as unhinged and self-destructive as Stringer Bell was controlled and ruthlessly businesslike.

Judging by the first hour—and since I’m writing about them episode-by-episode, I’m watching them one at a time—Luther looks to be a fine vehicle for Elba (and a better one for Ruth Wilson as his nemesis, but I’ll get to that later), but it’s a vehicle with a lot of worn tread on it. Prime Suspect aside, I’m less schooled in British procedurals than others, but I’ve seen enough procedurals in general to balk at the clichés and by-the-numbers plotting that are holding this show back so far. Elba’s cop-on-the-edge hero isn’t the freshest conceit, nor is the cat-and-mouse game he plays with a likely murderer, nor is the idea that his troubled psyche makes him more perceptive about the criminal mind than the average detective. So far, Luther does reasonably well with stock material—the show is, without question, smarter and more compelling than many of its kind—but Michael Mann this isn’t.

The opening has Elba’s John Luther in pursuit of serial killer Henry Madsen at the sort of generic factory common in thrillers of all stripes. (Bart Simpson could buy it for one dollar at auction.) The perp falls through a rickety bridge, and while he’s hanging over the abyss by his fingernails, Luther pumps him for information about a little girl he’s abducted. He gets the girl’s location—and she’s alive—but Luther chooses to let Madsen fall to his death. (Or what we assume is his death; incredibly, he survives and merely drops into a coma.) Seven months later, Luther is back from the long probation that followed the incident, and he gets a doozy of a case: Two elderly people and a dog have been murdered, and there’s no sign of a robbery or sexual assault.

Suspicion immediately falls on the victims’ daughter Alice (Wilson), a brilliant child prodigy who Luther pegs as the killer from just a few minutes of interrogation. (His certainty comes via a House-like moment of intuition: Yawning is contagious. Luther yawned. Alice didn’t yawn. Therefore, Alice lacks empathy with humankind, and is a psychopath. Case closed.) Lacking the evidence to convict, Luther has to set Alice loose, but she enjoys messing with his mind and he enjoys having his mind messed with, so the two make natural frenemies. Meanwhile, Luther’s erratic behavior has opened up a permanent rift with his wife Zoe (Indira Varma), who hits him with the devastating news that she’s been seeing a more stable dude named Mark (Paul McGann). And if you’re not yawning along with me on that last part, I suspect you’re a cat torturer.

The first episode of Luther has plenty to recommend it, starting with the back-and-forth between Luther and Alice, two dark geniuses who both seem to enjoy having someone who (at least partially) understands them. Elba hasn’t yet transcended a cop-on-the-edge role that’s written to type, but Wilson is terrific as Alice, a creature of pure malevolence whose grand design seems beyond Luther’s grasp. (The closing shot of tonight’s episode is a great question mark heading into Episode Two.) I also liked the idea of the police brass dealing with a detective who constantly embarrasses the department yet can’t afford to lose him. His brilliance cannot be extricated from his dysfunction.

So we’ll see how Luther plays out over the coming weeks. My guess is that writer-creator Neil Cross’ plotting will drive the series in one direction or another, but for now I’m on the fence—intrigued, but dubious.

Stray observations:

• Brits: I know some of you saw this show when it originally aired. If you could refrain from spoiling it—or suggesting directions you know it’s going to go—your pals across the pond would greatly appreciate it.

• The show could have done a better job of making Madsen’s fall look survivable. As is, it appears as if he’s dropping into oblivion, so the news that he’s alive and in a coma seems unlikely to say the least.

• None of the supporting players come close to emerging from Luther and Alice’s long shadow, but I’m thinking that Luther’s worshipful young partner Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) might add something.

• Luther: “I’m coming for you.” Alice: “Not if I come for you first.” Game on.

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