Tough formulaic cop series (aka “police procedurals“) are so thick on the ground these days (see here) it takes a rare specimen to stand out from the crowd. Everyone has their favourites, often the quirky and eccentric detectives, though these days they are all deeply flawed and possessed of sufficient hang-ups and conditions to keep a psychotherapist feverishly busy for many a long year. Indeed, a number have a decidedly self-destructive streak.
Of course many are retro-tecs, occupying some idyllic and timeless moment in times past, where others have become dated before their hour is up, but at heart they are all good guys and great cops, no matter how bizarre and off-piste their methods might seem – to the extent that in reality their unorthodox methods would probably see them in a cell rather than being on duty.
Many are up to the minute with attitudes carefully attuned to a contemporary audience, while a number are much loved and repeated on minority over the seasons in spite of being utterly un-PC. Thing is that in spite of the tough exterior they tend to be vulnerable individuals, sometimes with a heart of gold on the quiet – and that is the secret of their lasting appeal.
Where does John Luther fit in the scheme of things? Being black he stands out from the crowd, though race is not really relevant against a diverse London backdrop, though in the hunkily attractive person of Idris Elba (who went on to play Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom), he greatly appeals to the female audience, which casting is not remotely accidental. If you thought just men watched dramas about crime, you’d be very wrong. There is plenty of sexual tension on view, but almost no sex, other than a brief foray into the world of porn and prostitution in series 2.
Luther has psychological issues to be sure, and boy, does he have a temper when riled. That said he has been described as borderline genius in his insights into the criminal mind. Cool under pressure? He’s got it in spades. Trouble with the bosses? Frequently, since they spend much of series 1 and 3 trying to get him drummed out of the force. Thing is that he always stays just the right side of the line
The first chip on the Luther shoulder relates to the wife (Zoe, played by Indira Varma) who left him when he took time out following a close encounter with a serial killer, and in the meantime moved on to Paul McGann‘s Mark North: cue much heartache and overlapping personal and professional lives, since you know from the start this is bound to end in the sort of tragedy that afflicted Dexter (saying no more in case you haven’t seen that one!)
The second is when he attracts a groupie in the form of brilliant Ruth Wilson‘s brilliant Alice Morgan, who kills her parents but in such a way that she can’t be prosecuted. Morgan is an alluringly sexy female British version of Hannibal Lecter, but for the fact that she spends most of her screen time on the loose and does not apparently eat her victims. She might be a potential love interest but for the fact that Luther turns down sex, and probably saves his own neck in the process.
In fact, Luther resists temptation to bed women on a fair few occasions, and points out that he was never unfaithful to his wife in 18 years of marriage, which tells you John is a man of his word and strongly principled with it. Where many cops are identifiable instantly by their dress code and eccentric cars (see here for a few examples), Luther looks a body builder typically encased in a cuddly exterior (burgundy tie, blue trousers, cardigan, tweed jacket) amid colleagues who look continuously stressed and harassed amid a drab and downtrodden London alter ego, where you might be randomly slaughtered without a by-your-leave at the hands of some loony-on-a-mission.
Does John Luther always win out? Yes and no. He has setbacks aplenty, but despite the obstacles the various serial killers of London (and trust me, there are plenty on the evidence presented here) usually get caught sooner or later. Whatever Luther’s faults his intentions are good, and his first priority is always to save lives and think two steps ahead of the criminal – and his hunches are usually right.
In series 1 there was at least one killer per episode, akin to short stories with running themes, but the modus operandi changes slightly with series 2 and 3. The killers are not your ordinary run-of-the-mill killers, oh no. Some are nut jobs with pyschopathic tendencies, but a few are fiendishly brilliant, if not quite in the class of Moriarty.
Each killer has a very methodology which requires a keen mind like Luther to make blinding insights on the strength of sometimes minimal evidence, but then this brings us back to the old adage that there is the width of a gnat’s todger between the good guys and the bad, just as it was in the corrupt days of the Krays, when the police were distinguishable from the criminals only by the fact that they wore blue uniforms. Indeed, there is the odd dodgy cop featured in this series, though I’m not going to tell you which one(s)!
At one level there is nothing particularly remarkable about Luther, other than the fact that it is well-made, well scripted and directed (Neil Cross take a bow) and engagingly acted by the ensemble cast, such that the principle characters are more than cardboard cutouts and each has a backstory to fulfil their motivations. It is complex drama, but not so complex that you lose all track – and keeping each episode down to an hour helps the continuity and audience appeal. I did find my attention wandering on occasions, possibly because Cross attempts to sustain a peak for too long, though the moments of tension are handled well and demonstrate the skills of all concerned.
The fact that Luther has an adversary who is also very close works well, and is undeniably a feature of the best police dramas, since it became apparent to the broadcasters that you need a really excellent villain, one truly matching the (anti)hero in order to sustain great drama. If they just win out continuously, (a) it’s not remotely lifelike, and (b) audience interest wanes rapidly.
Doubtless there will be further series, but in the manner of Fawlty Towers, the appeal is maintained by the fact that there are relatively few Luthers to the pound. Less often is more, but to create volume you would need to expand the horizons of Luther. Indeed, in four series to date there are just 14 episodes, which would not sustain a single series Stateside. But there they would employ a huge team of writers. By retaining control, Cross ensures the quality of each episode is high and that the character is not diluted or developed into a Frankenstein’s monster of one sort or another to feed the insatiable appetites of those who gorge box sets.
Some aspects stick in the craw: Sgt Erin Crow promoted to DCI between series 2 and 3? Yeah right. All chiefs and no constables? Hmmm. Ex-cops brought out of retirement to nail current cops? And many more examples that employ literary licence or make sizeable nods to other series and characters. Suspend disbelief – it’s worth it
For now, enjoy what you’ve got. It’s good stuff.