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Television review: 'Luther' on BBC America

Star Idris Elba and creator Neil Cross put a new spin on the standard police procedural.

October 16, 2010|By Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic

The brilliant-but-troubled detective/cop-with-something-extra procedural has crept over the TV listings like so much kudzu, or, to be more local, bougainvillea — lovely to look at in many places but increasingly familiar in form and hue. And we all know what familiarity breeds.

But if there were room for one more rule-breaking, relationship-sacrificing, more than slightly obsessive and possibly unhinged anti-hero, it would have to be "Luther," premiering Sunday on BBC America. There's nothing here that we haven't seen before — creepy sociopaths, justice perpetually threatened by over-regulation, a celebration of psycho-deductive powers — but it's rendered with such depth and complex humanity to make the old seem new again.

It doesn't hurt that DCI James Luther is played by Idris Elba, an actor of such elastic talent that his credits include "The Wire" (possibly even more idolized in the U.K. than it is in the States), "The Office" and the upcoming "Thor." Able to identify a killer at 10 paces (in the pilot, the tell is the absence of a yawn), Luther has suffered a mental breakdown brought on by a fatal decision he makes while chasing down a pedophile.

He returns to work months later, now separated from his wife Zoe (played by the always radiant Indira Varna, who can also now be seen on Fox's "The Human Target"). Meanwhile, he's been cleared of any wrongdoing, but is still considered "nitroglycerin" by the ambitious higher-ups. Fortunately for Luther, and Elba, he has the support of longtime colleague DCI Ian Reed ("Criminal Justice's Steven Mackintosh), immediate boss Superintendent Ruth Teller (Saskia Reeves) and his admiring new partner, DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown). After the first episode, he also has the full attention of comely astrophysicist/psychopath Alice Morgan ( Ruth Wilson), who sees in Luther a worthy opponent.

Although each episode follows a separate case, laced with character-driven through-lines, "Luther" creator Neil Cross is not in the whodunit biz. In early episodes, we, and the London police force, know who done it; the question is how to find him or her and, more importantly, build a case that will hold. Much attention is paid to legalities of police work, which, as is standard in cop shows, seem designed to tie Luther's hands, preventing, rather than ensuring, justice. As Luther's boss, Teller has the unenviable task of being both head cheerleader and disciplinarian, a role that so often leads to romance. But Reeves creates such a wonderfully nuanced hybrid of faith and no-nonsense management that the narrative crutch of sexual tension is, thankfully, not necessary.

Luther, of course, is one of those guys so obsessed with his job that it threatens to destroy his own life — at one point Zoe accuses him of being more interested in the dead than the living. Again, this is standard cop-drama fare, and slightly ridiculous considering the nature of Luther's cases — it's hard to imagine anyone not being obsessed with finding murderous pedophiles or a police-slaying sniper. But it's also hard to imagine being married to someone who deals with things like that. Both Elba and Varna take a rather tired trope and bring it to life with color and shadows and something that looks remarkably like the rose-studded briar patch of marital love.

As the psycho-crush, Alice is the show's weak spot. Wilson is lovely, chilling and clearly having a ball, but it's hard to ignore the Hannibal/Clarice influence. Still, as with the rest of show's mechanics, the actors' skill — and Cross' admirable ability to explore his characters' boundaries without either calcifying or forsaking them — allows "Luther" to be superhuman in both the ordinary and extraordinary sense. And so his combination of self-confidence and self-doubt transcends the tread marks of his genre into real drama.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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