TV Eye: From Career Criminal to Copper

BBC America debuts a sexy, scintillating new detective show

Idris Elba, famous for his portrayal of Stringer Bell on <i>The Wire</i>, is on the right side of the law in <i>Luther</i>.
Idris Elba, famous for his portrayal of Stringer Bell on The Wire, is on the right side of the law in Luther.

A friend once remarked that when it comes to television, the Brits got it right first. In the past, I offered a polite nod to this declaration, as I had no opinion one way or the other. But after viewing the BBC production of Luther, I believe I am a convert.

Scintillating. Scary. Sexy. If you thought Idris Elba was that and more as Baltimore underboss Russell "Stringer" Bell on HBO's The Wire, hold on to your remote. This time, Elba is on the right side of the law, starring as John Luther, a brilliant homicide detective. Luther is more than your typical whodunit (as in the Sherlock Holmes tradition or any of the CSIs or Law & Orders) or the tortured-yet-heroic crime-solving expert who prefers to be a lone wolf (the Philip Marlowe mold or maybe Vincent D'Onofrio's Detective Robert Goren in Law & Order: Criminal Intent).

"What I have never seen, what I've never read or seen on television, was a character who exemplified both of these primary traits," explained series creator and crime fiction novelist Neil Cross in BBC America press materials.

Luther is a keen profiler, a detective who seeps inside the minds of psychopaths in order to anticipate their next move before they themselves have a chance to imagine it, let alone make it. A legend among his peers, Luther is well respected for his work. But his prowess has a dark side. To anticipate a psychopath, you have to graze awfully close to being one, and this is what makes Luther such a compelling character. He knows right from wrong. His moral compass is rock steady, and yet, there is a wildness in him, a predilection to step over the line if and when he thinks it might bring down the bad guy. Luther wants to assure that justice will truly be served when protocols are just too confining. Breaking and entering a suspect's home? No problem. Disguising himself in order to coldcock another suspect on the street to gather a little DNA from his bloodied glove? Why not? A suspect in a precarious situation allowed to writhe unaided? If it makes him talk, what's the problem?

Luther is a crime thriller, with emphasis on "thriller." The opening scenes of the third episode, guest starring Paul Rhys (Being Human) as a serial killer with a peculiar fetish for cleanliness and bloodletting, literally made my hair stand on end – all without a hint of gore.

Crackling dialogue makes each episode hum, with a smattering of humor to soften the prickly edges. But in addition to an already compelling lead, Luther is given a chilling counterpoint named Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) in a cat-and-mouse game. They meet after her parents are brutally murdered, and Luther quickly determines that the serenely beautiful Alice is not as innocent as she seems. He is forced to release Alice, but not before he tells her he knows the truth about her. Infatuated with the only man who truly understands her, Alice insinuates herself in Luther's professional and personal life – including his troubled marriage to Zoe Luther (Indira Varma, Rome). As the series continues, the connection between Luther and Alice gets closer, creating a relationship that is as frightening as it is fascinating. It would all seem preposterous were the writing and performances not as outstanding as they are.

Other cast members include Steven Mackintosh (Criminal Justice) as Luther's close friend and colleague Detective Chief Inspector Ian Reed; Paul McGann (Withnail and I) as Zoe's love interest; Saskia Reeves (Bodies) as Luther's boss, Detective Superintendent Rose Teller; and Warren Brown (Occupation) as Detective Sgt. Justin Ripley, Luther's new, starry-eyed partner.

Smart, sexy, driven, and mildly self-destructive, Luther is a flawed hero who you will root for even as you worry that these same traits will be the cause of his downfall.

Luther premieres Oct. 17, at 9pm on BBC America. Check local listings for additional air dates and times.

As always, stay tuned.

E-mail Belinda Acosta at tveye@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Luther, Idris Elba, Stringer Bell, Neil Cross, Paul Rhys, Ruth Wilson, Indira Varma, Steven Mackintosh, BBC America, Saskia Reeves, Paul McGann, Warren Brown

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