I was really looking forward to Luther, having heard of Idris Elba’s great performance and the show’s grim, twisted storylines. After the screening, which was admittedly highly stylized and cinematic in nature, I was left a bit underwhelmed, though entertained. The show certainly presents itself as very high quality, with high production value, interestingly angled shots, mysterious, artsy opening credits, and plenty of media buzz. However, it’s actual content did not stand out from typical American fare these days. This could be because of the increasing popularity of anti-hero dramas, particularly in cable network line-ups.
Though I don’t think the storytelling was particularly innovative or that the performances were all the highest quality (Ruth Wilson’s murderous Alice Morgan often came of as hammy to me), the show held my attention and was pleasant enough to watch. I was also happy to escape being beat over the head with the premise, particularly in a pilot episode of sorts. It was nice to watch a show that didn’t force a ‘twist’ on me, though many of us in class pointed out that this made Luther come off as cliched.
Though I certainly agree that many aspects of the show have been seen before, I think Idris Elba’s ability to instill a fresh character into a cliched role must be taken into account along with the show’s well-paced, entertaining (if not demanding) plotlines. Though I think Idris Elba will always walk a fine line between clutching The Wire‘s coattails and trying to escape its shadow, I think he has created a fine character in John Luther. It should be noted, however, that although Luther has been nominated for an Emmy and won a Golden Globe (for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Mini-Series for Elba), the series has not even been nominated for the prestigious BAFTA. This might give credence to the idea that Americans are clamoring to like something because of its darkness and Britishness (and maybe making up for ignoring Elba in the past), while they overlook the actual quality of the overall program.
Addendum: I watched the second episode of Luther this weekend, and I think one of the great appeals of the show comes from its short-run structure. This episode is much more like the typical American procedural than the first episode, in that a crime is committed, and John Luther rushes against the clock (the 52 minute run-time, that is) to catch the killer. The perpetrator is revealed from the start, and the payoff of the episode is learning (along with Luther) the motivation behind the crime. Though most episodes of Law & Order keep the true identity of the criminal a secret until the last 15 minutes or so, the open-and-shut nature of Luther’s case is a common factor (there will be a new crime next episode, and, according to iMDB, this killer will not appear on the series again). However, the fact that there are only 6 episodes in this series of Luther (and 4 in the second series) leaves the viewer to really invest in the other elements of the show–Luther’s relationships with his wife, Alice Morgan, and the police squad. With short runs and no need to stretch content out over lengthy 22-episode arcs, every episode matters, whereas Law & Order episodes only really effect each other during sweeps and finales. The stakes of Luther seem real, as actors do not sign seven-season contracts, and no one’s fate is certain. The danger seems real, and the various relationship changes have a direct effect on subsequent episodes. Luther thus provides intentional, serialized arcs along with the immediate gratification of an episodic. While some prefer one or the other, this show makes a watchable (though not necessarily brilliant) marriage of the procedural and episodic.