Luther and Quality

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.

About Christine

Christine Becker is an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Theatre at the University of Notre Dame.
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3 Responses to Luther and Quality

  1. Kelly Taylor says:

    Although I definitely think that Luther succumbs to the “typical” content associated with crime drama, I have to say that I think the show benefits from its character-driven content. The overarching relationship arc between Luther and his wife and the fact that Alice returns later on in the season gives the show another dimension that separates it from the typical. The fact that it is a short-run series allows the writers to really investigate character. There is less emphasis put on the crime drama itself because the characters turn out to be downright interesting. In fact, I was much more interested in the interactions/relationships than whether the killer “got caught.” I give the show credit for playing to its strengths and attempting to add a little something different to the otherwise cliche content.

    • Michael says:

      I think the point you bring up about the Golden Globe win compared to the lack of BAFTA nominations is great. I was always under the impression that “Luther” was at the very least nominated for either a “Best series” or “Best lead actor” award; but, the fact that it was not definitely does give further evidence to the fact that we in America gravitate our quality television to the grittier qualities of British television.

  2. Alex says:

    Personally as I watched Luther, I started to care more about the characters than the actual crime itself. I was pulled in by Elba’s performance even though the story around him seemed to be a little bit unbelievable. While she show wasn’t entirely realistic to how a crime like this would have been solved or handled in real life, the performances are what stuck with me the most. I guess I’m just another person in the crowd when it comes to Luther because I’m just impressed with Elba’s performance and I don’t really care what he does or says and if it makes sense. I agree with Kelly’s comment that it gives the writers a chance to really develop the characters by focusing on them instead of the crimes being committed. Also, everyone I’ve talked to about this show has said that the first season just gets better and better each episode, so I can’t wait to see how it plays out.

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