Nobody ever said that cop shows had to be realistic to be effective. Okay, they did, and in some cases they were almost certainly right, but the maxim doesn’t apply to BBC One’s Luther.
The genius of Neil Cross’s drama about an obsessive, inspirational detective lies in its sheer preposterousness. DCI John Luther’s private life matches the cases he works for utter inconceivability and the series is all the better for the outlandish facets of its main character’s existence. If it was more conventional – more realistic – it simply wouldn’t work.
In the recently-aired second series, Luther (Idris Elba) faces villains that scriptwriters on The Bill would have been fired for creating: ordinary, even boring-looking on the outside, ludicrously violent psychopaths on the inside. In the first two-part story, it’s Cameron Pell (Lee Ingleby): a student-turned-serial killer in a Mr Punch mask who delights in bringing a touch of theatricality to the crimes he commits.
In the second story, it’s the identical Millberry twins (both played by Steven Robertson), who execute wanton acts of brutality on the throw of a die, squirting acid from water pistols and whacking heads with hammers as if the whole, sick, messed-up world they inhabit is one giant game. They’re not so much criminals as monsters (‘He’s a bogeyman,’ Luther notes of Pell. ‘He spirits children away in the middle of the day’) and in that sense, Luther is as much an old-fashioned hero from fairytales as a copper – he fights monsters and beats them, using whatever means necessary; and despite crossing the line more often than a wayward winger on a slippery pitch, his nobility remains intact throughout – battered, bloodied and trampled through the mud, but intact.
Of course, it’s never easy. Even the most intense television cops usually find a way of relaxing, even if it’s just by hitting the bottle, but Luther is different. His private life is so dramatically screwed up that unwinding isn’t an option. His only friends outside the police force are the lover of his late wife, Mark North (Paul McGann), and teenager Jenny Jones (Aimee Ffion Edwards), an unwilling star of porn films whom he’s looking after for the widow of someone he once had sent down.
Complicated? That’s only half of it. While Luther might find some temporary solace in these relationships (he and North share an almost post-apocalyptic bond of survivor’s grief that’s wonderfully realised by Elba and McGann, while his rapport with Jenny is genuinely touching – it’s a 100% non-sexual liaison reminiscent of Jean Reno and Natalie Portman in Léon), it never lasts long. When he’s not chasing the killers, he’s being blackmailed into breaking the law for a local gangster (played, rather implausibly, by Pam Ferris) and assisting the escape from a secure mental health unit of Alice (Ruth Wilson), the killer he might have found some happiness settling down with if she wasn’t immediately leaving the country.
Come to think of it, Luther perhaps is rather like The Bill, only with every single character’s storyline for ten years magnified by a thousand, then compressed and compacted into one man’s life. It’s ridiculous, it’s overblown and it’s astonishingly good, from the writing to the production values and the performances of every single actor – even Pam Ferris. The only flaw is that the series is just too short. Four hours of Luther is simply not enough.
Extras: If you sing Nick Berry’s 1986 hit single with an exaggerated lisp, you can make the claim that every Luther wins. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Martin Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X; Luther Blissett’s career never really took off after a big money transfer from Watford to AC Milan; and Luther Vandross’s discography was forever blighted by that awful Will Smith remake of ‘Never Too Much’. Sadly, the Luther Series 2 DVD is also a major disappointment.
The four episodes are wonderful, of course – but there’s nothing else at all. Not even the briefest behind-the-scenes documentary. We were reduced to staring at the screen menus in the faint hope that an Easter egg of some kind would appear. It didn’t.
Released on DVD on Monday 11th July 2011 by 2Entertain.
Watch the Series 2 trailer…