tv review

Seitz: Luther Is Smart Enough to Just Let Idris Elba Be Idris Elba

Picture shows: DCI John Luther (IDRIS ELBA)
Photo: Robert Viglasky/BBC

It’s no shock that the Internet would fantasy-cast Idris Elba as the first Batman of color. If you’ve seen even ten minutes of Luther, you know that, in a sense, Elba is already playing Batman.

Series creator Neil Cross has said the show’s hero, Detective Chief Inspector John Luther, is inspired by Sherlock Holmes and Columbo, but that comparison would only be accurate if those characters’ adventures took place in Gotham City, or perhaps Frank Miller’s Sin City, which Luther’s debased, grim London often resembles. There are three kinds of citizens here: cops, criminals, and potential victims. The animated credits silhouette Elba against bloodstained cityscapes, hyping the character superhero-style, while also evoking Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade and — of course, James Bond, another franchise character that Elba’s fans dream that he’ll play someday. John Luther is figuratively and literally a dark knight, trudging the wet streets of a comic-book-noir London with his hands in his pockets. Jack the Ripper–level maniacs pop up through London’s grid, and Luther puts them down, whack-a-mole style. There’s a man who kidnaps mothers and drains their blood, a homicidal performance artist who wears a Punch mask, and a pair of evil twins, one jailed and the other free. It’s as if Bane had sprung the inmates from Arkham Asylum again: Here come the Jokers, one, two, three. (As if to embrace the show’s comic-bookish vibe, BBC One has posted “graphic novel versions” of scenes from series two and three.)

While I’ve watched season three, which runs tonight through Friday on BBC America, I’d rather not discuss it in detail here — not because it’s mind-bogglingly original and awesome (there are a lot of complications related to last season’s finale, and a strategic realignment of key characters, and a few fine twists), but because Luther doesn’t obsess over “mythology” as much as some shows do. It’s mainly interested in putting Idris Elba onscreen and letting us watch him be Luther. In that spirit, this piece is mainly an appreciation of Idris Elba as Luther. Since Luther is itself an appreciation of Idris Elba as Luther, this strikes me as defensible.

Amazingly, in this era of serialized everything, you might be able to drop right into Luther even if you’ve never seen a frame, provided you don’t mind having previous developments “spoiled” through exposition. The show is old fashioned in its structure, telling tales that tend to get wrapped up within an hour. Sometimes an investigation spreads out over two episodes, and some threads pertaining to Luther’s private troubles play out longer; but for the most part, this is a tight, neat, case-oriented series that’s more about what’s going to happen next than what it all means. You’ve seen the likes of John Luther before: a brilliant but mercurial self-destructive loner who has problems with authority. The most fascinating thing about him is that he keeps getting involved with shady characters not because he’s shady himself, but because he wants to make things better faster than the law will allow. He’s the accidental Popeye Doyle: a dirty cop who’s dirty because he cares so much. (In season two, when he “rescues” the young sex worker Jenny Jones, he slings the girl over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes; it’s an inversion of the rapist-Cossack image — a man protecting rather than despoiling a woman whom other men consider a “prize.”)

The show is rigged to let Luther dominate our attention, much as certain seventies films were rigged to make sure that we sympathized with their handsome but arrogant leading men: by giving the title character three dimensions and everyone else two, or at best, two-and-a-half. The seventies stars’ preferred scribe, William Goldman, once said that the first rule of Hollywood screenwriting is “Give the star everything.” Luther is Goldman-esque in that way. There are key supporting characters, but aside from internal affairs investigator George Stark, who wants Luther’s badge, and the glittery-eyed psychopath Alice Morgan, whose Hannibal Lecter–Will Graham–style mind meld with Luther verges on screwball comedy competition-attraction, you barely notice them. They’re all there to support or obstruct our hero. There isn’t a bad or uninteresting actor in the cast — I’m particularly fond of Nikki Amuka-Bird’s DS Erin Gray; maybe somebody on the show is a Buck Rogers fan? — but none are permitted to steal the spotlight from Luther for long, because he needs it to brood in.

This approach can’t work unless the leading man is so charismatic that you never tire of him. Paul Newman was that kind of actor, and until he turned 50, he often fronted unabashed star vehicles that gave him all the great moments and lines, and made the rest of the actors (except Robert Redford) settle for table scraps. This show gives Elba the Newman treatment, and Elba gives them the Newman magnetism — but thankfully, though he has the young Newman’s fresh-from-Mt. Olympus handsomeness, he’s giving an old Newman performance. Any Christ-like or Batman-like posturing seems to be encoded in the episodes themselves rather than emanating from an actor’s vanity. Slow-motion reveries in tonight’s premiere show Luther walking through pouring rain while street lamps and police lights light him like a moving sculpture, but this doesn’t feel like too much, because the show is fetishizing an actor that the camera can’t help but adore. Elba’s own approach to the particulars of the role are more modest. He’s handsome and fit, and very tall, but he plays Luther character-actor-style, as a Brendan Gleeson or Ray Winstone or old Newman might, rumbling along like an old cop with a gut who doesn’t care what anybody thinks of his appearance. When Luther, who’s got Mike Hammer’s luck with women, has a meet-cute moment in tonight’s premiere with a potential love interest, Elba plays the moment with sheepish transparency and a touch of insecurity, as if Luther can’t quite believe that something like this would happen to little old him. How can you not love an actor who looks as good as Elba, yet plays a moment like that one as old Peter Falk might?

Elba is a minimalist. He can imply an unspoken trip down memory lane just by unbuttoning his sleeve in a particular way, or slouching in a chair and glancing screen left. When he shouts or cries, the moment always feels organic, as if the intense emotion that Luther usually tamps down had suddenly erupted. Elba is believable not just as a man who lives in his imagination, but whose imagination is more fascinating than anyone else’s. And when Luther adopts unorthodox techniques — for instance, spreading evidence randomly in a circle around his office chair, and telling a co-worker he was inspired by David Bowie’s “decoupage” approach to lyric-writing — Luther explains himself so pleasantly that you never find him pretentious. He’s just a guy who knows a lot.

The only time we have any real problem liking Luther is when he commits violence as a moral shortcut, and even then we’re on his side, because we know — more so than perhaps any of his colleagues — that he’s good at heart, and means well, and is in over his head, etc. Thanks partly to the writing, but mostly to Elba’s performance, Luther rarely comes off as one of those swaggering CBS crime-show smarty-pantses, dumping wisdom on subordinates —and that’s good, because even at its sharpest, Luther feels a bit too CBS for my taste. Take Elba out of the title role and the show could be retitled Criminal Minds: London, with a tortured genius detective or profiler flouting procedure and dragging his colleagues into his personal drama, then ultimately earning everyone’s forgiveness by being the Best.

There are striking moments when the show seems intrigued by how social media and the culture of surveillance have turned crime into a spectator sport —which in turn suggests that, rather than having a deterrent effect, this technology might make crime more attractive to psychotic narcissists who just want to be famous. But the show never sustains this line of inquiry for long. It’s more interested in the cat-and-mouse usual, and in watching Luther dig himself deeper and deeper into self-made holes, getting loved ones and colleagues killed in the process. (Stark has a great moment in tonight’s premiere in which he methodically lists every Luther associate who’s died violently, then compares Luther to the Virginia farmer Roy Sullivan, who was struck by lightning seven times.)

This would all be unbearably tedious if every episode of the show didn’t look so glossy-soulful-decayed, and if Elba weren’t so compelling that you could watch him make dinner for an hour and come away thinking, That was the best performance of  “Man Making Dinner” that I’ve ever seen, and I like how he didn’t make a big deal when he flipped that potato pancake.

I really didn’t need to tell you any of this, did I? You’re in it for Elba, too. Who isn’t?

TV Review: Luther Season 3