Jonathan Storm: 'Luther' takes 'em on

Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan, witness in a grim murder.
Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan, witness in a grim murder.
Posted: October 16, 2010

Let's go to the adjective store to describe Luther, a British police show premiering Sunday at 9 p.m.

Powerful, challenging, ambiguous, surprising, dark, odd, stunning, grisly, disturbing, raw, sexy, taut, intense, captivating. One critic called it "creepy." Another adjective comes to mind to describe the programmers at BBC America, which will be telecasting Luther: stupid. There are so many places to schedule a series, and they chose Sundays between 9 and 10:30 p.m.

This show is sure to appeal to Masterpiece: Mystery! fans, who have been wallowing in psychologically complex police thrillers for years. Luther has a lot in common with the current Mystery! occupant, "Wallander." Focusing on a gifted misfit in the London police department, Luther is even closer in feel to the Helen Mirren series, Prime Suspect, though perhaps a half-step below in quality, which is in no way a knock.

Masterpiece Mystery! airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on PBS.

Luther's not as gory as Dexter (what is?), and it's just a little more about solving cases, but it's also primarily the study of a title character filled with rage and bad guys who get too near frequently winding up dead.

Dexter airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

Boardwalk Empire has almost nothing thematically in common with Luther. Its budget is much larger, and it bustles in the long-ago with scads of characters, while Luther is more intimate, compact and compellingly contemporary. But both are very carefully filmed. Frequently, if you've got the right equipment, you can freeze-frame and feel as if you're staring at a painting, one a little gauzy and baroque, the other a step or two from abstract expressionism.

Boardwalk Empire airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Thank goodness it's 2010, and a viewer is no longer helpless in the face of this absolute train wreck of terrific TV. You can record some of it. You can watch it later on demand. PBS doesn't give you another scheduled shot during the week to watch Mystery!, but HBO and Showtime provide lots of chances to catch up with their shows.

BBC America will rerun the Luther premiere at 9 p.m. Thursday. Encore airings of future episodes are yet to be scheduled, so after finding BBC America in the first place (in most Comcast systems it's channel 114), you'll have to check every week if you choose to watch on a night other than Sunday.

The show stars Idris Elba, who seemed like such an authentic Baltimore gangster when he played Stringer Bell in The Wire. But he's a native Londoner, and at the television critics' summer gathering in Los Angeles, he demonstrated that John Luther's accent and speech patterns are also different from his own.

Elba is flat-out scary as a detective who's too smart to fit in and too angry in the face of continual crime and depravity to care. And Ruth Wilson, who played the title character in PBS's most recent Jane Eyre, is also flat-out scary as Alice Morgan, an astrophysicist who got her Ph.D. at 18 and comes into Luther's life as a witness in a grim murder case.

He's large and black, with a stubbly beard. She's small, with alabaster skin, blue eyes, red hair, and a charming overbite. Their relationship, which lasts over the entire six-episode first season of Luther (a typical series order in Britain), is unlike any that has come before on TV. The contrast of their appearance contributes to some of those visually striking scenes.

There's a case a night in the first three episodes, and the show gets even less traditional, more deeply psychological and truly jaw-dropping in the final three. Most of the time, viewers and detective know who the criminal is; the nuts-and-bolts story and suspense is in the catching.

But it's the opposite of Columbo, the classic cat-and-mouse detective show, a howdunnit, rather than a whodunit.

With the tormented Luther, it's sometimes tough even to identify who is the cat and who is the mouse. Writing and acting come together to produce characters, more than stories, who are powerful, surprising, ambiguous, and all that other stuff.


Jonathan Storm:

Television

Luther

9 p.m. Sunday on BBC America.


Contact television critic Jonathan Storm at 215-854-5618 or jstorm@phillynews.com.

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