05 May, 2010

What the Papers Say: "Luther"


Sam Wollaston, The Guardian

"My girlfriend is a serial killer. How do I know? I yawned at her this morning and she didn't yawn back. Ha, got you! Murderer! It's a trick I picked up from Luther (BBC1). He – John Luther, wayward cop, bull of a man, intelligent, troubled, big on passion, less good at observing case management protocol – yawns at Alice Morgan in the interview room. And she doesn't yawn back. So she did it: killed her own mum and dad, shot them to buggery at point-blank range, as well as the family pet, a lovely golden retriever.

It's all to do with yawning being contagious. Only the unempathetic are immune – ie, killers. So that's it, case closed, they did it. Except, unfortunately, the yawn test doesn't stand up in court. There's no traditional evidence against Alice, no weapon to be found (it turns out the gun was inside the golden retriever, since she shoved it down his throat after shooting him – the dog ate my evidence, even though the dog was dead). So Luther has to let her go and do some normal non-yawn-test investigation. Well, normal for Luther, which is to put his head down and charge at a case.

His combative approach to investigating crime, and to life in general, leads to all sorts of problems. People fall from great heights and lie in comas. Others are hurt emotionally; relationships (including his own) are torn apart. The sexual tension between him and Alice is ratcheted up (come on Luther, that's the first rule of policing: never get off with the chief suspect). "Go on, kiss me, kill me, do something," she taunts him, rather ridiculously, as they hang off Blackfriars Bridge over the Thames. But, even though they are separated, he still loves Mrs Luther; and Alice knows that, so she threatens to stick a big pin into Mrs Luther's head. Alice, played by Ruth Wilson, really is wicked; I'm not surprised she failed the yawn test.

Luther is played, with lots of enthusiasm, by Idris Elba, who, of course, was Stringer Bell in The Wire (he has switched from crim to fed, poacher turned gamekeeper, citizen of Baltimore to Londoner, which is what he actually is). It must be tough to have been in, and to always be associated with, possibly the greatest TV show ever. Everything susequent will – unfairly – be compared with it, and will inevitably be a disappointment. Luther is not bad, but nor is it The Wire. It's an above-average cop show – more interesting than The Bill, a bit cooler, and London looks better (the Barbican looks fabulous). It tries hard, perhaps too hard, to be intelligent and interesting. But I don't believe it.

I don't believe in John Luther himself, bursting at the seams with rage and overdosing on maverickness. I'm not saying that TV policemen should be like real ones; that could get boring. But this could be taking it too far. Neither do I believe in Alice Morgan – genius (she's a physicist – dark matter is her thing, appropriately), seductress, killer – running round London with her big high-quality kitchen knife. I don't believe in their relationship: sometimes hunting each other, next minute flirting, then sparring academically about philosophical ideas such as Occam's Razor. (Maybe she's going to get him with Occam's Razor, because the Global kitchen knife wasn't sharp enough, or maybe she'll castrate him with her intellect.) I don't believe that inside a dead dog is really a good place to hide a gun. And I don't believe in the yawn thing. It's a shame. I was proud of discovering that my girlfriend is a murderer. And a little bit pleased – is that wrong?"

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Andrew Billen, The Times

"John Luther, the most maverick cop since Vic Mackey on The Shield, has woman trouble — which is funny, because the women in his life have John Luther trouble. Take his wife, Zoe, played by Indira Varma, a smart lawyer who works in an office so chrome and shiny that it makes the BBC’s election studio look like Steptoe’s yard. She has taken time out from their relationship after noticing that Luther was no longer in it, but, rather, in a bad place hunting a child abductor (this would be the same bad place that young Hathaway found himself in on Sunday’s Lewis — it’s crowded with telly cops). Now she’s met a gentle bloke with a beard. She dreads breaking the news to Luther, who has obviously alarmed her by telling her “I’ve got myself together and I’m good.”

When the Hackney boy comes round to Posh Street to visit, she is dressed in an off-the-shoulder number that he mistakes for something about to be removed for him. He needs to know something... His face registers astonishment, disbelief, grief but with dignity he picks up and replaces a candlestick on her mantelpiece. He has got himself together and he’s good. The next sec he is looming towards the kitchen door like Frankenstein’s monster, punching out its top two panels, and kicking apart the remainder. The rich never learn: if you’ve got the money, spend it on timber not MDF. “Why? Why?” he asks her, as in why has she left him. I couldn’t imagine.

Meanwhile in his work as a maverick cop with added insight into human nature, Luther is playing cat and mouse with a psychopath called Alice — the elastic mouthed Ruth Wilson — who has killed her parents, disposing of the weapon in their dog’s stomach (a plot point that produces the immensely quotable line, “The gun was in the dog.”). As a murderer, Alice, an infant phenomenon who went to Oxford aged 13, has got it all so far as guile and intellect go, but, despite diligent homework on the Look It Up search engine (if she’s that bright why doesn’t she use Google?), she lacks something when it comes to human empathy. Alice is so crazy she thinks she’s the cat and Luther the mouse.

The third woman in Luther’s life is his boss DSU Rose Teller, who actually welcomes back to her team the giant her boss refers to as nitro-glycerine. Luther had been suspended pending an investigation into how the paedophile had ended up not so much in a bad place as a coma when Luther could have saved him. Rose gives him a lecture on protocol or, as the excellent Saskia Reeves pronounces it, “pro-o-col”, and, also, a mug that says “You don’t have to be mad to work here but it helps”. It should, of course read, “You don’t need to have a glottal stop to work here, but the voice coach prefers it.”

Luther is the highest nonsense and the greatest fun. It’s not Cracker but crackers. Luther diagnoses Alice’s malignant narcissism with rapier speed after she fails to return his artfully inserted yawn in the interview room. Alice threatens his wife by inserting a hat pin down her ear hole. But for once a writer, in this case Neil Cross, has not been script-edited out of existence. It looks as if his jokes have been kept in, even the bad ones. So has the tortuous metaphor equating the astronomer Alice with one of her black holes. Nonetheless, it is Luther’s show, which means it is Idris Elba’s. As Stringer Bell on The Wire, Elba barely raised his voice. As Luther he’d smash up his office if someone fouled up and put sugar in his tea. Judging by the interview he gave The Times on Saturday, Elba is monstrously arrogant about his talents. Judging by the first Luther, he has cause to be."

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Tom Sutcliffe, The Independent

"John Luther has just returned from a long period of gardening leave, while an internal investigation establishes how he – oops – failed to prevent a serial-killing paedophile from falling four storeys. His immediate boss – Saskia Reeves, 'eaving out 'er 'aitches to show how down to earth she is – would like him to play it by the book in future. He is, she tells him at the beginning of Neil Cross's new detective series, Luther, to "observe case management protocol... any proactive strategies to be signed off by me". Fat chance of that, we know at once, because the only book Luther appears to care about is "So You Want to Be a Maverick Detective". Rule One. Have relationship difficulties so you can gloom about the place in between pounding desks and chasing killers. Tick to that, since Luther has just discovered that his wife plans to make a temporary separation permanent. Rule Two. Combine a penetrating psychological intuition with a grasp of the basic rules of evidence that would shame a probationary constable. Tick to that too, since all it took for Luther to spot that his suspect was a "malignant narcissist" and had just topped her mum and dad was the fact that she didn't yawn after he did during an interrogation.

And yet, despite the fact that that was all he'd got to go on, he still threw a tantrum in his boss's office when she was eventually released. Rule Three. Be a lot brighter than any of your suspects expect you to be. Big tick to that, given that Luther is able to discourse suggestively about dark matter and Occam's razor in a way that sends a frisson of sexual thrill through the psycho-killer physicist he's trying to crack.

They're so conventional mavericks, these days, rarely enlivened by anything that would genuinely give the conventions a bit of a twist, such as a passion for Civil War re-enactment, say, or a happy home life with a drag queen. It's all lonely drinking in late-night pubs and revelations of existential angst: "I love to talk about nothing... it's the only thing I know anything about," Luther said at one point. But Cross's series does have some things going for it. One is Idris Elba, who was magnetically commanding as the Baltimore drug dealer Stringer Bell in The Wire, and makes a pretty good fist of the hand he's dealt here. You might suspect that Luther is more a loose constellation of cop-show clichés than a fully formed character, but Elba brings the clichés to life on more than one occasion, his eyes jittering from agitation to acceptance in a way that suggests that there really is something going on behind them. Another thing in its favour – though you'll have to suspend your disbelief to relish it – is the pathological flirtation between Luther and the killer he can't quite nail, which looks as if it will run through the series to deliver a bit of Hannibal Lecter intrigue. It is, there's no getting away from it, a bit of a comedown after The Wire. But then it's hard to think what wouldn't be."

Luther, Tuesdays, 9:00pm, for six weeks

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Overnights: 5.76

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Catch up via iPlayer

4 comments:

Adaddinsane said...

Yes. I watched it - my one word review: Unconvincing.

I was hoping for more - some of the dialogue was sparkly but the plotting was glib.

Robin Kelly said...

I liked the emotion and dialogue but the rest was, pretty much, unconvincing.

The Brothers McLeod said...

I've just finished writing an hour long on spec pilot for a crime drama (mine's more comedy drama to be fair) so it was interesting to watch Luther and see how Neil Cross had dealt with the perennial problem - how do you bring something fresh to this incredibly popular and much visited genre?

Particularly how to handle the main character and make them distinctive. Inevitably they are a person who is driven by their desire for truth or justice over all other elements of their life, which often means they are an alcoholic, a junkie, a gambler, divorced, etc. etc.

I enjoyed the performances of the actors and it was certainly a very easy show to watch. I can see there is an attempt to move away from the story-a-week series model that has been the norm here in the UK (I read Ben Stephenson wanted less story-a-week stuff - must be the influence of all those US serials).

I was a bit bored by the crumbling marriage subplot. I really felt like I'd seen that so many times before.

I also did feel a little like I could see the fourth wall at times with all the intellectual posturing.

But mostly, while I can see that some elements of Luther were unconvincing, I just feel an empathy with the writer for trying to create something fresh in an overcrowded marketplace.

Myles

Robin Kelly said...

Myles, I see what you mean. My last TV police pilot was meant to be fresh and original but I found out that the idea is the most popular idea for police specs ever.

I didn't mind the sub-plot too much, it was convincing and recognisably something humans would do - which I can't say for the main plot.

I suspect that it will still be a story of the week, it's just that the suspect in the pilot will be part of the running storyline throughout the series.

Serials are good but not enough people are willing to commit to them and if a regular series has too much of a serial element than they switch off.

Adding a big complicated serial element was all the rage in the US after Lost but every one of those shows flopped because they hadn't got the story of the week right, as Lost did.