If Luther was an American cop show from the days when American cop shows weren’t mostly better than British ones, each episode would open with a tedious, mock-epic voiceover performed by some Charlton Heston-a-like proclaiming: ‘John Luther – a detective on his own, trying to keep his head above the surface in a river of scummy slime that comes closer each day to dragging him under.’ You can even picture the title sequence, culled from this episode, featuring the titular detective walking down a deserted city centre street with nothing but a gasoline canister and a determined look on his face for company as Massive Attack’s ‘Angel’ looms threateningly on the soundtrack.
But Luther isn’t like that all. If you wanted to pick a visual that better illustrates the true nature of its frequently fraught but resolutely incorruptible central character, you could do worse than select a shot of him in the lift on the way up to his grotty top-floor flat. Every time the doors slide shut, the real John Luther appears, the ever-mounting burdens he carries pull the calm, carefree expression from his face like wrapping paper off a Christmas present. For a few seconds, the heartache and the doubt spill out across his face; and then the lift pings and the unruffled, I-can-deal-with-this exterior is back in place and Luther is once again ready to take on whatever cataclysms life has to chuck at him.
This week, it’s the simple matter of disposing of the body of a rapist gangster stabbed by a teenager trying to forget her pornographic past and make good, whilst simultaneously catching two serenely savage siblings, the aim of whose game is to bring London the most terror and tragedy it has experienced at the hands of twins since Jedward made the last six of The X-Factor. ‘I think we’ve got two killers in competition,’ Luther (Idris Elba) realises. ‘If we find out the rules of the competition, we can find a way to stop them.’
Easier said than done, of course, and while detaining one half of the double act was easy enough, the other – who after only a couple of rounds of hammering and acid-squirting, ups the stakes to something even more diabolical – proves far more elusive. Luther, in the most ridiculous, unrealistic, heroic and utterly brilliant way possible, has to put his own life on the line to save the city from the havoc the Milberry brothers (both played with wonderfully eerie ordinariness by Steven Robertson) wish to wreak. ‘I’m John,’ our hero says chattily at the climax, as if he’s never had a moment of existential elevator self-doubt in his life. ‘Do you want to play a game?’
Even in a modern entertainment world where America, France and even Denmark are routinely exporting excellent psychological police thrillers as if there’s a NATO surplus, Neil Cross has proved with this show that British television hasn’t forgotten how to make them either. But one thing that could be learned from the foreign competition is how to balance quality with quantity. At only four episodes long, the only conceivable complaint that could be levelled at Luther is that it’s too short – and that’s criminal.
Airs at 9pm on Tuesday 5th July 2011 on BBC One.