It is a fact generally acknowledged, that the English do cerebral television better than the Americans, and Americans do action better than the English. But the two things aren’t mutually contradictory, as you may observe by watching the BBC series Luther, available now on Netflix. It was first recommended to me by Gene Edward Veith at his Cranach blog.
I’m not sure about all the theological conclusions Dr. Veith draws—it seems to me that biblical and Christian references are bound to show up in any literate script, even in our day. But I entirely agree on the narrative power of this superlative cop series.
The hero is London Detective John Luther, played by the amazing Idris Elba. (If you want to know what “star quality” means, just observe how this guy eats up the screen in every scene in which he appears.) Det. Luther is a haunted man, more concerned with justice and protecting the public than with following approved police procedures. Because of this both his career and his marriage are shaky. His anguish as he tries to do right by all his obligations provides the central tension that drives the series—like a race car.
The two seasons are more like American miniseries than what we’re accustomed to in television series. Which gives greater freedom for major characters to do something surprising, or get killed, or anything else. I thought the first season (six episodes) rather stronger than the second. The first time around, Luther is struggling with himself. In the second season, he seems more comfortable in his place in the world, and his enemies are exterior.
One thing that struck me, particularly in two episodes of Season Two, was the incredible (to an American) vulnerability of the British public. A serial killer stalks the streets, the office buildings, the railway terminals, heavily armed and entirely secure in the fact that no one will be able to defend themselves against him in any way. You’d almost think the producers had an idea that a right to self-defense might be a good thing (nah, I’m just projecting).
I had a couple quibbles, especially with that second season. I found it inexplicable that Luther allowed a murderer to go free, even though he knew that person had killed, and had no reason to believe they wouldn’t kill again. Also I thought the final solution to Luther’s personal problem in the last episode overly neat and improbable.
But all in all, this is outstanding television. Not for the kids.
Lars Walker is the author of several published fantasy novels, the latest of which is an e-book, Troll Valley.