Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Luther Season Premiere Review: "Episode 1" - Idris Elba Is Awesome and Little Else Matters

Idris Elba is awesome in "Luther"

Let me preface everything that follows with the fact that Idris Elba is an amazing actor whose work I will watch no matter what I think of the rest of it and he’s been nominated for an Emmy twice before this very role (though in the movie/mini-series category despite Luther not being a mini-series or movie; but that’s a whole different rant).  John Luther is a wonderfully complex character who runs the gamut from scared, desperate animal to ruthless, unfeeling vigilante.  The television world is a better place with Idris Elba in it.

That said, the rest of Luther is just not a good show.  I binged the first two seasons of the show this spring (all of ten episodes so it wasn’t a terrible commitment) and two things were made exceedingly clear by the end: Luther is just another in a long, tired line of crime procedurals that fetishize their criminals and, secondly, Luther is too much in love with its main character for its own good. 

As to the first point, the most obvious example of the fetishized killers is the twins from the second half of season two.  A pair of killers operating separately (all the better to give a nice cliffhanger in between episodes) are at first thought to be killing for racial motivated reasons but then are discovered to be killing randomly as part of a game.  We’re treated to their dice-rolling as they select their victims, the meticulous selection of the weapon of choice, the long, slow build-up to the crime and then most of the grizzly act itself.  Luther is relentless in its depiction of violence. 

That same relentlessness is on display in tonight’s third season premiere, though we never actually see the acts being committed (with the exception of a fight scene between the killer and his victim's husband).  The killer in the first two episodes (the four-hour season has been split in half to give us what are essentially two-hour movies) is a fetishist who dresses his victim in a wig and makeup after killing her and stealing her shoes.  The details are largely irrelevant (other than to note that the killer’s MO is familiar to Luther from a series of killings thirty years ago), but the ways we visit the killer are incredibly over the top.  In the opening scene, we get the class “under-the-bed” shot as the intended victim slowly undresses and gets into bed.  The startling crash of strings as the killer reveals himself under the bed is straight out of Halloween.  We get a long scene on the bus with the killer as well as an extended look at his picture wall, filled with images reflecting his victims.  And don’t forget the overwrought music.  None of these scenes gives us any insight into the killer, they're simply all there to show us a scary serial killer being scary.  Remove Idris Elba from the equation and this could easily be another episode of The Following or Criminal Minds or the disaster that was “Mohai,” last year’s Halloween episode of Hawaii Five-0. 

Some shows can get away with fetishizing killers.  Hannibal does because the murders and their barbarism are essential to the development of their investigator, Will.  We see the effect the murders have on him so they’re not just killing for the sake of killing.  The tableaux on Hannibal are also so fantastic that they eschew any sense of realism.  I mean, there’s a totem pole made of human bodies.  How realistic can the violence seem after that?  But in Luther there’s no hyperrealism and there’s no levity.  The violence is needlessly prurient.

As to the second point, that a show built around an antihero loves its main character is not a surprise.  But the best of these shows are willing to acknowledge their character’s flaws and admit that they’re not perfect.  But Luther’s vigilantism is never presented as anything other than a positive character trait, even when he’s hanging a suspect over a third-floor balcony.  This is especially galling considering that a main plot in the third season is a new Detective Superintendent launching an internal investigation of John’s methods, even going so far as to enlist the help of John’s partner, Ripley.  It’s a little hard to believe that Ripley would be so willing to turn on John.  He was, after all, the one man willing to believe John when all the world believed he’d killed his ex-wife.  Still, the far more worrisome aspect is the fact that this new threat, Stark, comes from completely out of nowhere, gives no reason for his vendetta against Luther, and does nothing really to advance the issue of whether John is fundamentally a good cop or a bad cop.  Creator and sole writer Neil Cross wants so badly for us to love his character in spite of all his failings that he’s unwilling to really delve deeply into his character's deeds, even when the opportunity is presented.

Ultimately, the question to answer in any review of a season or series premiere is “Should you watch this?”  When it comes to Luther’s third season (and really the series as a whole), the answer is "Yes".  If you like Idris Elba and enjoyed his work in The Wire, Pacific Rim, or, hell, The Office or anything else he’s done, then Luther is worth watching just for the master class he puts on (not to mention Ruth Wilson’s incredible performance when she finds her way into an episode).  If you’re looking for the next great crime drama, this isn’t it.  But at only four hours (and only fourteen for the entire series) it really is worth it.  After all, Idris Elba is awesome and little else matters.

A few spare thoughts –

There’s another murder case being investigated involving a “cyber troll” being murdered.  It seemingly culminates in a gruesome finale, but some of the leaps John makes to find the killer (who I’m still not entirely convinced is the true killer) are a little speculative.

John has a nice car accident meet-cute that doesn’t really go anywhere in the season premiere, but might give us a nice look into his personal life in future episodes.

“What is this, Nazi Russia?”

So thoughts?  Comments?  Just want to tell me that my blog sucks?  Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @TyTalksTV

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