Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Luther Review

In general British television, unlike all other aspects of society and culture and government, is often better than American television. For example, where we make Game of Thrones, they'll make Downton Abbey. They have a better handle on period pieces and adaptations and if that's your cup of tea, and yes clearly it's my travel mug of iced coffee, they'll impress your socks off.

However when it comes to police dramas and crime shows, they are unsurprisingly lacking. I say unsurprising because where England has impressive levels of violent crime they have a remarkably incapable police force, as most of the world witnessed recently, but more on that later. Aside from Prime Suspect (and God only knows why NBC has remade a Helen Mirren show with Maria Bello) which was groundbreaking and successful and very well written, BBC and the other few stations they have over there with original programming have only recently begun producing mysteries and procedurals based on crimefighters that are actually enjoyable.

Their most recent attempt at creating an iconic, troubled, engrossing detective is Idris Elba's DCI John Luther. Hit the jump for a review of both seasons and some mild spoilers.

The series starts with our hero chasing a suspect through some abandoned factory, all the way up to the top where the bad guy falls down the middle of a broken walkway and catches the side, clinging for dear life as Luther approaches. Using his literal position of authority, Luther proceeds to interrogate him for the location of a girl he's taken and hidden. He finally gets it and calls it in and his team saves the girl. Not entirely content, the already obviously obsessive Luther begins talking about the man's other countless victims and the horrors they went through, all while he's dangling and begging for his life. Luther stares at him and takes a bit too long and the man loses his grip and plummets all the way down.

Cut to some shaky shots of distress and a depressing mental hospital run by the NHS and we learn that Luther suffered some sort of breakdown after this possibly-murderous episode, but now, six months later, the ruling by a panel or committee or whatever bureaucracy in charge at the moment has come back in his favor and exonerated him. The judgment is quite a relief, as Luther promptly recovers from his previous trauma and gets back to the job where a gruesome double murder (if you don't count the dog) and an in-shock young woman who found her parents dead awaits his investigation.

Enter Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan and, aside from Elba's magnetic acting, the reason to watch this show. After a few minutes in the interview with her, Luther yawns and apologizes and steps out, immediately telling his team that she's the killer. Apparently not responding to the yawning-is-contagious thing means one is a sociopath with no sympathy and while that seems a stretch the decided change in tone when he goes back to the interview convinces the audience of Alice Morgan's guilt.

It is a fantastic scene. Like all scenes in the series between Elba and Wilson, it is fun, compelling, perfectly written, charged and still humorous. Turns out not only is Alice a homicidal psychopath, she's also insanely brilliant. A genius, really, who will not get caught for the murder of her parents, not even by the incomparably savvy DCI Luther. In fact, she develops an affection, or whatever she feels in lieu of affection, for John, and not only do they develop a bizarre friendship, one that is actually one of the more honest and true relationships in the show, but any further murders or crimes we see her commit are done entirely for his benefit.

I've loved Ruth Wilson since her Jane Eyre, in which she was wonderful. (Mia Wasikowska's recent muddled attempt is not even comparable with Wilson's depth of strength and intelligence.) Here she obviously does something completely different, but she nails it. It may not be the most complex character, but it feels so unique to see a different kind of human, one who is really rather the embodiment of potential evil and yet charming, pretty and funny. Wilson plays Alice fiercely, with never an unnecessary eyebrow cocked, her movements as orchestrated as Morgan's elaborate, foolproof plans, and her chemistry with Elba is considerable.

Also in the show are Indira Varma, as Zoe, Luther's mostly-ex-wife, and Paul McGann as Zoe's new boyfriend. Luther's attempts to reconnect with Zoe are pretty good ways to get to know his character, mainly his capability at overwhelming obsession when dealing with a particular case, to the expense of those around him, yet all because at his core he is a good man who helps people, and risks his own happiness and safety to do good when others lock their doors. Varma is very good in her role, conflicted and emotional and desirable, and while I only know her from early Torchwood, it's unfortunate that her character's fate isn't much better in this show. McGann is very good too.  While I haven't seen his Doctor (a not-critically-loved portrayal, to say the least) I remember him as the ever loyal Lieutenant Bush in Horatio Hornblower, a personal favorite, and thus have a soft spot for him. His arc was surprising, going from a doubting voice on the periphery to full-on rival and, by the end of season 1 and the entirety of season 2, a trustworthy and unconditional ally to Luther.

So the acting is superb. Got it. Then what's the problem? Well, to be honest, the crime. And in a crime show, that's a rather large part of the momentum. It starts off well, concerned with Alice Morgan and her perfect murders. If only the entire series could have been about her; Morgan as Moriarty, Morgan on a murder spree, or even just Morgan and Luther, it would have been great. To my extreme disappointment however Morgan takes a backseat in most of the episodes, acts as a kind of consultant for him until the finale when her role increases, and then she disappears in the middle of the abbreviated second season, never to return.

In lieu of an interesting, diabolical adversary for Luther, Neil Cross, creator and writer, instead chooses to give us a series of grisly, terrible crimes, each one more appalling and violent and gruesome difficult to watch than the last. While I understand the level of apparent desensitization in today's culture, the levels aspired to in order to recreate some kind of shock in viewers, that doesn't mean I enjoy or condone it. Often it feels like lazy writing, to come up with the worst possible human, and have the camera linger on their sadism for far too long.

Granted, they capture London very well, and often show a deterioration in British culture that they are not alone in viewing. There is such a prevalent level of hooliganism and entitlement, freedom from consequence and a constant desire for easy stimulation in Britain that the latest riots are far from surprising. Perhaps Cross is showing that through these characters, these dregs of humanity, and that's especially possible in characters like the young twin brothers who create their own role playing game, going around and randomly killing people in public with different weapons, thus acquiring points. That could be social commentary right there, easily, but what about the well-coiffed art dealer who kidnaps mothers, drains and then drinks their blood for satanic purposes? Dear God, is it so hard to write a good story without being so deranged and horrifying? Isn't straight up murder enough? Do we need to stick a V for Vendetta mask on the killer?

Oh, and writing in a murderer who is a disgruntled army veteran who's father, also an army veteran, is in jail, and thus takes out his PTSD and revenge fantasies on cops by killing them via sniper and bogus emergency calls? That's just a whole new level of cheap and disgusting, especially cause it's insanely unoriginal these days.

Those regular plot points often kick Luther, at least temporarily, into the horror (specifically slasher) genre, which would be acceptable if that was how it was marketed and if it committed entirely to that. But oscillating between a tortured, emotional character study, examining Luther's psychology and the importance of Love in peoples lives, to victims in meat lockers and doomed commuters being massacred in a subway station, it's just too much, even for this overstimulated twenty-something.

So if you're resilient when it comes to watching gruesome material, you should enjoy the series. I suppose that's really my only main objection, though I feel that, despite assurances that John Luther is a good man, despite believing it myself and seeing him do good time and time again, at the end of the show there was nothing decidedly redeeming for me to cling to.

Murder, be it done to innocent strangers or characters you've grown close to, is shocking and entertaining without a doubt. But if its only purpose is to drive our main character deeper into despair and wildness, it really just feels cheap.

Luther. Come for a British cop show. Stay for Idris Elba, Idris Elba's coat, and Ruth Wilson. 

While I clean this murder weapon, tell me, Is that from H+M?

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