Watching the show walk a fine line between finely observed character drama and pulpy, overwrought cop thriller creates its own kind of tension, and sometimes 'Luther' just gives in and steps over the edge into grandiosity or cliche.
Yet this four-part British import has a lived-in, evocative atmosphere, good supporting performances and provides an excellent star turn from Idris Elba. All of that makes up for a lot, even as you get the sense that with a lesser actor than this masterful 'The Wire' veteran, the entire enterprise would have probably fallen apart.
Despite the show's flirtation with a whole range of "cop on the edge" cliches, 'Luther' is actually quite good at creating tension and suspense, at least in its first three installments. If you watched the show's first season, you know that 'Luther' isn't especially good making every twist and turn feel earned and it once again has trouble sticking the landing, but Elba's performance makes it worth staying with this occasionally pretentious drama.
On paper, 'Luther' sounds like a mass of familiar serial killer paradigms colliding with a dozen troubled-cop cliches, and this season, there's even a hooker with a heart of gold in the mix (well, the character isn't quite that predictable, but Luther's desire to save her is). Still, the show usually has a solid, chugging momentum, and it's usually interesting to watch Luther think creatively about the big and bloody cases that come his way. His acute, unexpected insights and his ability to solve unsolvable cases keep him employed by the London police, even if they know he's not the most stable or dependable of men.
My least favorite part of 'Luther' is his relationship with Alice, an intelligent murderer Luther came across in season 1. Many have praised Ruth Wilson's performance as Alice, but I find it hammy and mannered and I'm glad there's less of her over the course of this four-hour season. We already get that he can see into the minds of murderers because there is so much darkness in his own soul, yada yada. We don't need that point hammered home by his strange friendship with this woman. Yes, he likes living on the edge of danger -- that point is made by the show again and again. But he's got plenty of opportunities for that without Alice breezing by to offer half-whispered sociopath platitudes.
But sometimes 'Luther' just can't resist overdoing it, as is the case in an ongoing thread about underworld types who want to use Luther for their own ends. Parts of that story are just ludicrous, and there's also a certain amount of repetition in the two big serial-killer stories that 'Luther' unravels in its brief second season.
Yet individual scenes within 'Luther' are written with the kind of offhand realism that is one of the show's saving graces. Especially toward the close of the season, the pacing feels a bit off and various story lines stray into unfortunate or baroque places (and there's one sequence near the end that strongly -- too strongly -- echoes a similar scene in 'The Shield,' a far more disciplined show). But moments in which Luther just talks to people are often subtle and engaging.
'Luther' may veer off course at times, but it just about works because Elba never oversells Luther's charisma. He doesn't have to. Thanks to Elba's subtle and compelling performance, you can easily believe that Luther's colleagues stick by him, even as they doubt his sanity or his ability to play by the rules.
Note: A BBC America representative said that 'Luther' episodes, which have running times of 55 minutes or more, are not being trimmed for the show's American airing.
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