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LutherI admit I was skeptical. The description… something about an urban detective using psychological factors to solve crimes while dealing with personal challenges sounds like a dozen other crime show out there right now. I figured it would be the usual “Mentalist” meets “Lie to Me” meets… you get the idea. Don’t get me wrong–I like these shows, but with each new one that gets added to the television offerings (that one where Tony Shaloub has OCD; that reboot of Kojak with Ving Rhames that I just didn’t get into), the enactment of the premise seems to become a little more trite, a little more cliche, a little less engaging.

Not so with Luther. This show surprised me, and by the end of the first episode, I was hooked and wanting more. My list of five:

Idris Elba as Luther

If this were a longer list, he’d be my first and last choices. As the lead, Elba plays Luther with a slouchy, hands-shoved-in-pockets, weary edge that works marvellously well. He seems weighted by the sadness and corruption of the world. But, beneath the weariness are two fascinating characteristics: the first is a coiled emotional tension that we glimpse occasionally in a gesture, a look, and then forget about… until it bursts out and we realise that under the weariness is a man who cares so deeply that he is barely able to cope and hold himself together. This is masterfully done. The other characteristic that pulls the viewer in is the charisma. Luther is fantastically charismatic, and Elba’s choice of making him such an understated, struggling character makes the charisma far more compelling–to me, at least–than if he’d put it out there and turned it up to eleven.

Ruth Wilson as Alice Morgan

Another fascinating character, as played by Wilson (whom I also really enjoyed as the eponymous character in one of the recent adaptations of Jane Eyre). I love the boundaries she’s able to cross, and I really like the dynamic between her and Luther, for all that the characters are not romantically involved. The two of them, on screen together, have the kind of chemistry that slaps you in the face–and the writers are wise enough to keep the contact at a level that leaves the viewer wanting more.

The Post-Colonial Narrative

One of the things that I find intriguing about Brit shows is that race is handled so differently to how it is in North American shows (and particularly U.S. television). There are a lot of reasons for this, but it also means that the fact that Luther is of African heritage, his wife is clearly of East Indian background, and so on, is portrayed differently to what you’d see if this were done in the U.S. Like the rest of the show, it’s understated and totally matter-of-fact. That said, their relationship is compelling because of the characters, and where they are emotionally, in themselves and in the context of their relationship–not because of ethnicity.

The Trappings of a Plot-Oriented Detective Show In Which the Conflict is a Function of Character

Not the most punchy of headings, I know. But I couldn’t think of a more succinct way to express this concept. I love that on the surface, it’s a whodunit detective show–but the core conflicts and challenges that keep us watching and engaged all arise out of marvellously drawn characterization. In a good narrative, there’s always some element of this–we don’t watch Dexter because we just want action-oriented plot twists, but because the characters intrigue us–but here, the relationships are so grounded and well done. That (and the excellent acting) is what elevates this drama to an altogether new level. Luther’s troubled and conflicted nature, his deep sense of a calling that makes him want to help people, even as his sense of moral or ethical imperative does not line up with procedure and process; the ways in which we see so clearly how much Zoe loves him, and why she cannot be with him anymore for her own emotional wellbeing; even the ways in which his partner is so loyal and his boss is so stoic. It’s potent stuff, marvellously done.

Smart Plots and Villains

I always like it when the villains aren’t dumb and make obvious mistakes. I’m similarly impatient with deus ex machina resolutions. Here, the solutions Luther arrives at are often unexpected, but effective and to me at least, they don’t feel contrived or problematic. I might be watching the show primarily for the bigger story arcs (Luther and Zoe; Luther and Alice; the office place politics) but I do want the episodic challenges/whodunits to be engaging, and I do want some meat there, in seeing how Luther approaches the solutions and deals with the moral ambiguities involved in arriving at those solutions. I love that the show delivers at both levels.

Many of these factors are functions of excellent writing, of course–the necessary prerequisite for the director to orchestrate an excellent production and for the actors to shine through their creation of the characters. It’s the ensemble, the combination of all these factors, as well as the visual styling and the overall “feel” of the piece, that draws the line separating mediocre from amazing. If you’re someone who likes shows that are about moral ambiguity and the darker side of our natures, set in a crime-solving context, then Luther is one to add to your list.