I despise television. I find it to be a massive waste of time. If it were not for my wife’s insistence I wouldn’t have cable. Sure I’d miss watching my Reds and my Buckeyes, but it would keep me from the temptation. You see, despite my firm belief that television’s sole purpose is to turn my brains to mush so they are more delectable for the aliens, I am more than willing to sit in front of the damned machine for hours on end. Thanks to the likes of DVR and Netflix I have eliminated the need for commercials, but I can’t get away from the simple mindless pleasure. Since my wife insists on paying for cable, or rather Direct TV after all why just watch TV, I have been able to leave behind the trash the big four networks have deemed worthy of the masses. Instead I sift through so many channels I can’t even count them and only subject myself to the finest in mind-numbing production.
Lately this has brought me down a decidedly British road. Sure, I go for plenty of Canadian sci-fi. What is it about Vancouver that breeds such things like the X-files, Stargate, and Firefly? Maybe it’s such a dull place leaving Canada won’t do. They need to get off the whole planet. But mostly I find myself squarely in the realm of a nice cuppa and a smoking Jaguar. The BBC, in particular BBC4 gave me some good fun with Simon Pegg’s SPACED and of course the IT Crowd, and I’ve become a devout Jeremy Clarksonfan after more than a dozen seasons of Top Gear. Still, Britain produces plenty of stupidly bad television. How Red Dwarf managed to stay on the air longer than Seinfeld and Friends combined I’ll never know. But every once in a great while a piece of screen writing comes along and truly surprises. Luther is just such a show.
As a kid I was partial to the occasional British crime drama gracefully passed down to us poor country folk on Masterpiece Theatre on PBS, no I’m sorry, it was Mystery! with the lovely Dianna Rigg. Anyway, I was familiar with the basic hierarchy of London Metro. John Luther is a high-ranking detective at a particular department that seems to cover both an affluent and shady portion of the Big Smoke. Though to be honest the old London fog cliché seems to have disappeared from the public psyche in the last 10 or 15 years. Still, my knowledge of the city is limited so let’s move on. Luther, played by the talented Mr. Idris Elba, is a short fused and very hot-tempered detective who has just returned from seven month’s leave following an investigation into his handling of the case of a killer who had a penchant for putting little girls in boxes. When Luther finally corners the man he simply lets the man fall to his death, only to have him survive in a coma. The investigation fails to prove this fact so here he is back on the job.
His first case introduces the second main character, but any more discussion on that will ruin the first episode unless you can finger the killer in the first few minutes. The series starts out normal enough with a new murderer every episode interlaced with a larger story arch and Luther’s personal life. Ho hum, if you’ve seen Dexter you’ve seen this before. But, Luther’s character has a way of surprising me like few characters on television today can. His actions are not random plot twists like those of Hugh Laurie’s House of late. The soap opera turn that show took in the last three or four seasons finally swore me off it for good. Instead Elba weaves his way through the psyche of those around him in a way that is at once Holmesian and yet distinctly un-Holmesian. Warren Brown plays a wonderful Watson as Luther’s loyal companion, but unlike so many tag-a-long’s Brown’s character Detective Sergeant Justin Ripley is very nearly as clever as his mentor and a very useful companion.
At the end of season 1, or series 1 as the Brits prefer, the show takes a diversion through the mental ward that leads it straight off the deep end. By the conclusion of episode 5, why British “series” only last six episodes is beyond me, I was left dumbfounded perched on the edge of my Lazy-Boy. Normally if a show gives me even a hint of a cliff hanger ending I can do nothing but dive right into the next show, especially if I’m watching it on Netflix. But here I had to pause. I had to step away from the TV and process clever madness to which I had just bore witness. Luther is a deeply flawed character who holds no qualms about breaking the rules, especially those set in place by long-standing TV tropes. His behavior does not hold to any normally predictable patterns and yet, again unlike Gregory House who shares his obstinate genius demeanor, he maintains his believable and likeable humanity.
Now, if you haven’t seen the first episode or if you’re one of those sacrilegious bastards who doesn’t care if I spoil it for you I’d like to discuss with you Elba’s costar. Ruth Wilson portrays the cold-hearted and fiery red-head Alice Morgan with a fierce intensity. Luther is fully aware that Alice is responsible for the deaths of her parents and yet he’s helpless to prove it. Still, her level of criminal genius rivals his own and so he begins to take comfort in her continued attempts to gain his respect. Not a respect for the evil she pervades in the world, but in a respect for her ability to commit heinous acts in such a way that she is recognized as the perpetrator and yet remains out of his grasp.
This sick and twisted attractive young lady develops into Luther’s alter ego of sorts. She maintains his hot temper and yet holds a firm grip upon it. She feels no moral obligation to confine herself to society’s rules and is therefore capable of accomplishing Luther’s goals in a more efficient and succinct manner without consideration for emotional ramifications. That’s not to say she ever acts under his orders. He tries to stop her at every turn. Which is why their relationship is so fascinating. It simply should not exist. Yet on some level Luther clearly feels the need to continue this bizarre and twisted budding friendship because despite frequent opportunities he refuses to do so. Granted the longer he puts of reporting Alice’s actions the more difficult it will be to explain his knowledge of said actions, but certainly things would be better for him in the long run if he turns her in now. Their relationship turns a page in the final episode of the season and it leaves me wanting nothing less than more.
I cannot recall the last time I have witnessed such quality television on such an intellectual level. Still, you can polish a turd…