Shiny Shelf


By Mark Clapham on 06 May 2010

David Simon famously said that his intention with The Wire was that the audience should be required to ‘lean in’, that the storytelling should make the viewer do half the work, pressing them to engage with the programme.

Luther, the first British star vehicle for Idris Elba, who made such an impression as The Wire’s almost endearingly pretentious drug dealer Stringer Bell, has the opposite effect: its combination of lightweight detective show cliches and preposterously grandiose villainy had me knocked back on the sofa, agape. Luther isn’t bad, but it is a bit baffling.

The central character of police detective John Luther comes straight from the Monkfish school of cliched maverick detectives. Obsessed with the job, Luther ticks all the dysfunctional boxes: goes too far when interrogating subjects; attacks furniture when he loses his temper; runs off into dangerous situations without back-up; knocks head with his boss when they suggest that he might need some evidence now and again; and is so poor at personal relationships that he leaves his wife for months on end and is surprised when she swans off with a failed Doctor Who in the meantime.

So far, so generic police procedural.We’ve been here before, many times, usually in this timeslot. Popular actor plays troubled cop, filling time between the soaps and the news.

But Luther is elevated beyond the bog-standard by a thick gloss of Wallander-esque class. The cast is uniformly excellent: Elba has tremendous presence as does Ruth Wilson (more on her later), and there’s formidable support from the likes of Steven Mackintosh (obligatory loyal colleague) and Indira Varma (obligatory alienated wife). The filming of the London locations is appealingly lavish and suitably grim, albeit surprisingly Barbican-centric. There are some neat directorial touches: the characters’ isolation is often played up by framing them towards the bottom corner of the screen, making them look swamped by their surroundings.

So cliches bad, production values good. But there’s more: a seam of spectacular pretension and cartoon oddness. If you’ve read so far and are intrigued enough to watch the first episode, look away now: I’m about to heavily spoil it.

The first episode revolves around Luther investigating the shooting of a couple and their dog, and the survivor/chief suspect is the couple’s daughter Alice Morgan, a former child prodigy and physics genius (the aforementioned Ruth Wilson). In spite of a lack of forensic evidence or clear motive, Luther soon has Alice down as the killer, and when Alice realises this she all but admits it, challenging Luther to match wits and prove it.

The use of the phrase ‘match wits’ there may have clued you into the fact that at this point Luther strays from relatively realistic cop show into Holmes/Moriarty territory, with a side order of Stoppard play as Luther and Morgan get into extended, arch conversations about Dark Matter as a metaphor for morality. Or something. Wilson is great, but as Morgan intellectually grandstands and runs around being villainous in a wig she belongs in a different kind of show altogether, facing a different police nemesis: Inspector Gadget, perhaps.

The problem with Luther isn’t that it’s unrealistic, it’s that it doesn’t seem capable of deciding what kind of un-realism it aspires to. Prime Suspect and Cracker were both about the relationship between the lead character and the criminal, and as such the bias towards face-to-face interviews made sense, and was at least couched in some idea of procedure. Inspector Morse was about crossword puzzles and intellectuals, and got away with high-archness because of it. Wallander is nonsense in terms of actual policing and detection, but that doesn’t matter because it’s more about the lead character’s engagement with his moral universe, a near martyrdom for the sins of others.

Luther isn’t as clear cut in its intent as any of those, and on the basis of the first episode writer Neil Cross doesn’t seem to have any strong idea of what the series is about.

Luther really needs to decide what it is and go for it. If it’s about Luther facing off against OTT baddies in intellectual debates, then it needs to jettison the sluggish, pseudo-realist overtones. If it’s a character drama, then those characters need to be more believable and less riddled with cop-show cliches. And if it is supposed to be a vaguely realistic police procedural, then less melodramatic crimes and criminals are required.

There are strong elements here, but they don’t cohere into an engaging totality: instead, we’re presented with a megamix of other programmes, cobbled together because they vaguely ‘fit’ the timeslot and lead actor. It’s not even amiably bland: it takes itself far too seriously to offer such simple mainstream pleasures.

This is usually the point where I claim that I’ll stick with a new series to see whether it lives up to its potential, but experience tells me that my own poor time management mitigates against me following a series that’s just ‘promising’ or ‘quite entertaining’ (sorry, Stargate SGU and your middling kin). If it does turn into something superb, please feel free to chastise me in the comments below as the series progresses.

On the basis of the first episode, Luther doesn’t grip me enough to persevere with, and for a crime drama with such high production values and great acting, that’s a very bad sign.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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