If you were 50 feet up and a child serial killer was hanging perilously from a broken walkway would you save them?
That’s the choice that DCI John Luther is faced with at the start of the BBC’s most vivid and powerful crime drama for years. Series creator and writer, Neil Cross, has crafted a masterpiece that drills right down to the psyche as we follow the life of this troubled, maverick detective. Last night the first series of Luther came to a close in a manner so dramatic and instinctively right that I was left torn between emotions.
Idris Elba, famous for his role as Stringer Bell in NBC’s The Wire, has portrayed Luther with infallible conviction from the very start. Chasing down sadistic killers and having to suffer the anguish of being too late to save their victims is something Luther does on a daily basis – and Elba dispels any doubt. But the heart of this fine televisual tapestry lies in Luther’s devotion to his work and to his wife, Zoe Luther.
In each episode there is another crime to be solved, another killer to be stopped, but the series builds towards several unanticipated dilemmas as Luther’s work life and personal life collide. The supporting cast of Luther are not pawns in the background while Elba runs around London dishing out volatile justice at the expense to his own safety, they are all essential players in a modern tragedy. From newbie DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) who grows to trust Luther – much like the audience – over the course of the series, to the chilling Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) who becomes his unlikely counsel, every one of these characters exists for a reason, and the result is a bold, mature drama that never once loses confidence itself.
This is not a safe, but completely faux, US cop show where the actors are running around with guns firing blindly at the camera. Luther is unusual, nerve-racking and violent. In its most teeth-clenching moments the actors appear genuinely shaken when they choose to inflict the ultimate punishment. You know it’s coming, but when it finally does you have the shock of the proximity, then everything that immediately follows feels like unscripted chaos, so believable are the characters’ reactions.
Furthermore, the payoffs are so rich because the series sets a dark and gritty tone and goes on to prove to viewers that it damn well will rub salt in the wound. Some viewers have called Luther’s hard-edged effects “gratuitous,” but they’re no worse than what some US shows have been doing. When the drama is this good, fantastic practical effects only add to the raw emotion.
A six-episode series this tightly focused, that has moment after moment of thrills, but is also a rounded piece of satisfying fiction is the rarest of television events. It’s a series that will have poignance years from now, as it unsettlingly leaves you to ponder how irreversible circumstances would affect your own life and the actions you take thereafter. Yes, many more crime dramas will come, but Luther’s debut series will stand as a seminal piece of modern drama. Regardless of what the future holds for this new BBC series, I will remember its arrival as a mesmerising, thoroughly theatrical experience that challenged my expectations at every turn.