Without doubt, Luther has been one of the cornerstones of the British television schedule this year so far. Its six episodes broadcast across May and June, the BBC’s latest police drama starred Idris Elba as its gruff and conflicted titular hero and commanded a significant, if somewhat inconsistent, share of the ratings. Already released on DVD, the series has also been penned into BBC America’s schedules for later this year. Broadly well-received critically in the UK and arguably already possessing a cult fan following, it’s interesting to speculate about how Luther might be welcomed in the United States.
Elba’s character is Detective Inspector John Luther, a talented investigator wracked with guilt over past deeds and rendered potentially unstable by his dying relationship with his wife. Luther polices a London that sometimes seems twinned with Gotham, inhabited as it is by murderous genius nihilists and the occasional vicious Satanist. This environment, and the cases that play out within it, are imbued with impressively high production values that American audiences should soon settle comfortably into. Additional familiarity is ensured by Elba’s presence, most famous in both the US and the UK for his role as the studious druglord “Stringer” Bell in HBO’s The Wire. It will be interesting to see how American audiences respond to Elba’s depiction of a British character; indeed, Chris Carr of BBC Worldwide has expressed hopes to “surprise a few people by revealing that [Elba’s] British”.
New audiences expecting Elba’s involvement to signal that Luther is a crime series as cerebral and convoluted as The Wire will be shown otherwise. Actually much more of a melodrama than many expected, the series requires a certain amount of suspension of disbelief, its plots being unusually dark, violent and occasionally making fairly large narrative leaps. However, it’s hard to see these characteristics holding Luther back in the US, at least no more so than the long-running British spy series MI-5 (or Spooks, as it is known here), which has often featured many of the same characteristics and has been broadcast with some success on multiple US TV networks over the years. Spooks, incidentally, counted Neil Cross among its main writers – the sole writer and creator of Luther.
Much moreso than Spooks, though, Luther has come into contact with genuine controversy over some of its twisted plots and violent content. Spooks caused a serious stir during its first series when a female agent was brutally introduced to boiling oil in a neo-fascist’s kitchen, but the BBC’s more recent series has included scenes of similar horror multiple times during its short run. Publications like the Radio Times have been flooded with complaint letters over the perceived reliance on violence against women as a plot device, with perhaps only the creators’ knack for implying and hinting at violence, rather than showing it, saving the show from being at the core of a major uproar. With any luck, this technique and the show’s surely lower profile will save Luther from that fate stateside.
My feeling is that most viewers of the series during its original run here in the UK would, given the chance, enthusiastically recommend the show to prospective US audiences. For many, the perception of Luther is that it is a refreshingly gritty and ingenious crime series, using Elba’s rising star as the centerpiece of an able cast and deftly exploring the darker sides of human nature as played out in a darkly enticing London. I for one believe that the show’s production team deserve their work to meet with success in America – we’ll see if it does in the autumn… or fall.