'Luther' Series Premiere

Lesley Smith

The pay-off for persistence with Luther is so rich that it is worth suspending judgment on the show for its first episode.


Airtime: Sundays, 10 pm ET
Cast: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Steven Mackintosh, Indira Varma, Warren Brown, Saskia Reeves, Paul McCann
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: BBC America
Air date: 2010-10-17

Luther is one of the most schizophrenic drama series in recent years. The first three episodes offer standard psycho-of-the-week plots, in which an off-the-rails policeman, John Luther (Idris Elba), simultaneously dazzles his colleagues with his genius and terrifies them with his impetuosity. In response, his boss, Detective Superintendent Rose Teller (an underused Saskia Reeves wielding a wobbly Cockney accent), calls Luther's presence on her team "nitroglycerin."

But this formula gives way in the last three episodes to riveting drama. These start with the horrifying disintegration of a lower-middle-class working man into the madness of serial murder and end with a tangle of corruption and killing that recalls the stomach-churning violence of classic crime movies of the ‘70s.

Some of the initial problems with the series stem from Elba’s own overwrought performance. But more arise from weak plotting and Luther's excessive psychological baggage. Ironically, the drama kicks into creative overdrive only when he is no longer the show's sole focus. Although Elba captures the moody slouch of the disaffected Londoner -- shoulders hunched, hands jammed in his trouser pockets -- he pitches his performance too intensely from the beginning. When a simple obstacle precipitates Luther’s loss of control, he has nowhere to go when facing a more fundamental shock, whether an abduction scene decorated in screeds of nonsense written in blood or his estranged wife’s rejection of his reconciliation attempts.

Creator/writer Neil Cross includes the recent cliche of the selective psychopath, Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), as Luther's new best friend, and an irritatingly passive-aggressive romantic rival, Mark North (Paul McCann). In some scenes, the desperation on Elba’s face seems as much a response to his reading of the script as to the repeatedly noted burdens of Luther's job. The show includes other clichés as well, including Luther's inspiring his fellow cops to talk up his imagination and daring, even as his crime-solving seems pedestrian. In the first episode, which premiered on BBC America 17 October, Luther's soi-disant brilliant revelation of a murderer’s secreting the lethal gun in the stomach of a dead dog was semaphored right from his earliest observations at the crime scene. And in Episode Three, his supposedly ingenious ruse to trap killer Lucien Burgess (Paul Rhys) seems more like the fitting up that once marred the Metropolitan Police’s reputation for probity.

As frustrating as this slow-burn beginning may be, it also guarantees that the amped-up intensity of Episode Four will catch the viewer completely off-guard, as do the cascading plot twists that follow. And the intermittent glimpses of Luther’s quiet vulnerability suggest how he secures the loyalty of not only DCI Ian Reed (Steven Mackintosh), but also the support of his very young, very by-the-book new partner, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown), with whom Luther develops his most eloquent relationship.

Although Luther scarcely develops over the series, both Reed and Ripley are transformed. The two rework very familiar cop show roles, the trusted long-term back-up man and the rookie partner, the actors investing each with unusual complexity. When Ripley trots alongside the taller Luther in the first episode and tells Luther how he transferred specifically to work with him, he radiates eager puppy-dog sincerity. But behind the hero-worshiping façade, Ripley’s physical persistence and stoical expressions suggest he's also struggling to maintain a moral line he never thought his profession would ask him to cross. Here Brown conveys how Ripley’s determination matches Luther’s own. For, while he admires Luther’s successes and reputation, he has no intention of compromising his own integrity to follow him, or anyone else.

As Ripley finds his own way, Reed bears more and more of the burden of Luther’s lack of control. The low-key Mackintosh slowly intensifies Reed’s nervous gestures and his lack of affect, appearing to shrink within himself and so inviting viewers to contemplate the corrosiveness of Luther's hubris. In the final two episodes, Reed's trajectory indicates what happens when an intelligent, self-aware man is asked to choose between personal survival and his loyalty to a more charismatic colleague with whom he is always implicitly compared.

The pay-off for persistence with Luther is so rich that it is worth suspending judgment on the show for its first episode, and even for its second and third. Summon your patience and settle in for the long haul. By its end, the series' exploration of how ordinary human fallibility is transformed into shocking human depravity is compellingly inventive.


This book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Marcelino Truong launched his autobiographical account of growing up in Saigon during the Vietnam War with the acclaimed graphic novel Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63, originally published in French in 2012 and in English translation in 2016. That book concluded with his family's permanent relocation to London, England, as the chaos and bloodshed back home intensified.

Now Truong continues the tale with Saigon Calling: London 1963-75 (originally published in French in 2015), which follows the experiences of his family after they seek refuge in Europe. It offers a poignant illustration of what life was like for a family of refugees from the war, and from the perspective of young children (granted, Truong's family were a privileged and upper class set of refugees, well-connected with South Vietnamese and European elites). While relatives and friends struggle to survive amid the bombs and street warfare of Vietnam, the displaced narrator and his siblings find their attention consumed by the latest fashion and music trends in London. The book offers a poignant and jarring reminder not just of the resilience of the human spirit, but also of its ability to seek solace in the materiality of one's present.

Keep reading... Show less

The World of Captain Beefheart: An Interview with Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx

Gary Lucas and Nona Hendryx (photo © Michael DelSol courtesy of Howlin' Wuelf Media)

Guitarist and band leader Gary Lucas and veteran vocalist Nona Hendryx pay tribute to one of rock's originals in this interview with PopMatters.

From the opening bars of "Suction Prints", we knew we had entered The World of Captain Beefheart and that was exactly where we wanted to be. There it was, that unmistakable fast 'n bulbous sound, the sudden shifts of meter and tempo, the slithery and stinging slide guitar in tandem with propulsive bass, the polyrhythmic drumming giving the music a swing unlike any other rock band.

Keep reading... Show less

From Haircut 100 to his own modern pop stylings, Nick Heyward is loving this new phase of his career, experimenting with genre with the giddy glee of a true pop music nerd.

In 1982, Nick Heyward was a major star in the UK.

As the leader of pop sensations Haircut 100, he found himself loved by every teenage girl in the land. It's easy to see why, as Haircut 100 were a group of chaps so wholesome, they could have stepped from the pages of Lisa Simpson's "Non-Threatening Boys" magazine. They resembled a Benetton knitwear advert and played a type of quirky, pop-funk that propelled them into every transistor radio in Great Britain.

Keep reading... Show less

Acid house legends 808 State bring a psychedelic vibe to Berlin producer NHOAH's stunning track "Abstellgleis".

Berlin producer NHOAH's "Abstellgleis" is a lean and slinky song from his album West-Berlin in which he reduced his working instruments down to a modular synthesizer system with a few controllers and a computer. "Abstellgleis" works primarily with circular patterns that establish a trancey mood and gently grow and expand as the piece proceeds. It creates a great deal of movement and energy.

Keep reading... Show less

Beechwood offers up a breezy slice of sweet pop in "Heroin Honey" from the upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod.

At just under two minutes, Beechwood's "Heroin Honey" is a breezy slice of sweet pop that recalls the best moments of the Zombies and Beach Boys, adding elements of garage and light tinges of the psychedelic. The song is one of 10 (11 if you count a bonus CD cut) tracks on the group's upcoming album Songs From the Land of Nod out 26 January via Alive Natural Sound Records.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.