You've seen it before. The detective show, where every episode has a criminal to be caught within 45-or-so minutes (have to have time for those commercial breaks!). Inevitably, the episode begins with a body, some compelling leads, before introducing the b-plot. Things tick along, checking off the beats one after another, the plug-and-play details on this week's particular crime, the criminal changing like grim Mad Libs.
It's the sort of dark fluff you can check into whenever you're feeling something vaguely sinister in the background. Yes, the evildoer's gonna get caught, and yes, the detectives in question will find their personal lives once again embroiled in some melodrama, but up until those closing credits, you'll get a little adrenaline spike: maybe this horror show could happen to you!
Luther (BBC / HBO Max) is not one of those detective shows. It cares not for your standard episode beats, nor for your 20-odd episode seasons and regular villain line-ups. Much like tough shows like The Shield, Luther's London-based police force operates along gray lines, willing to bend rules as needed to catch the criminal.
Or, sometimes, because they've got a side gig going on that needs handling outside those lines.
Luther stretches a plot that'd get stuffed into a single episode into its variable seasons, most only a few episodes long. Whether that's because stars Idris Elba and Ruth Wilson have aggressive shooting schedules or not, it's hard to say, but the result is the creeping dread has a lot longer to set in. Yes, you can be sure the criminal's eventually going to be caught, but the devastation along the way is both unpredictable and often massive.
While criminal procedurals aren't often noted for their addictive characters, Luther brings this element to the forefront. Elba's Luther is as complex as any detective on screen, often battling his desire to save lives with his personal demons. He'll get himself into trouble and, unlike, say, Sherlock Holmes, have to solve his way out through a combination of brilliance and sheer guts. The man has scars and earns more as the series plays out, each one adding weight to a role Elba dominates. By the end of the last series, which came out in 2019, the man's as traumatized and exhausted as anyone you'll see.
His counterparts also avoid cliche, the show doing its work to flesh out character motivations even in limited screen time. Luther's captain cares deeply for his force, and is in a constant struggle with whether to allow Luther's continued risk-taking, despite the results Luther gets. Fellow detectives and gangsters have fun roles to play, taking advantage of the cable channel's license for language and violence.
Alice Morgan, Ruth Wilson's diabolical foil, is a cold monster who nonetheless tells the bitter, and brutal truth. Her recurrent appearances are a treat, as both she and Luther come closer and closer to circling a mutual, nihilistic drain. She's accepted an inevitable that Luther struggles, and loses ground against, much to her mocking disappointment.
And the criminals themselves! These villains run the brutal gamut, hitting strange and sinister levels, from random to designed. They're rarely one-note killers, instead using each series' run time to expand their dread so that, by each series' end, you're so ready to exhale when they're cuffed or taken out.
Luther's flaws, however, don't escape the show's genre traditions. There are still logical leaps from time to time, similar to Sherlock's magical mystery solving. Characters cross London at light speed, often showing up at places without explanation and at the right time. Luther himself seems to take more hits than a horror villain and keeps on ticking.
All of these, though, can be waved away with the same forgiveness we grant the Law and Orders of the world. None break immersion overmuch, and even if you might raise an eyebrow when another gunshot comes from nowhere, you'll settle back in to see how the tangled chains of Luther's next encounter work themselves out.
A dark, fascinating detective story, Luther takes the seeds sown by procedurals over the decades and turns the focus on the heroes, not the villains. That twist, coupled with great performances and scripts filled with knives, makes for an utterly watchable show.
Just, you know, keep something happy in your back pocket. You might need it.