‘Luther’ is big-budget British crime drama

Dave Bartlett
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Idris Elba plays Det. Chief Insp. John Luther in the BBC show “Luther.”

After spending most of my waking hours in recent weeks waiting for the next “Broadchurch” episodes to air — only two left — I’ve tried to sate my thirst for British crime drama with BBC’s “Luther” from 2010.

It’s a show I’ve had on my radar for a while now because its titular character is played by Idris Elba — yes, Stringer Bell from “The Wire” plays a diamond-hard cop, with just a little grey in his hair.

The intensity of the character is no surprise, but it takes a few minutes to get used to Elba speaking in his natural accent, instead of the thoughtful, Baltimore tinged whisper.

While it’s no “Broadchurch,” “Luther” is a very well made show, with both a mystery of the week and a truly engaging story arc.

The show opens as Det. Chief Insp. John Luther chases a suspect though an abandoned industrial complex. The suspect, notorious child-killer Henry Madsen, falls through a weak floor and hangs by his fingertips.

Luther, who merely walks fast after the sprinting perp — like Jason from “Friday the 13th” — now towers over the hanging man. His latest victim is believed to be still alive.

Madsen gives up the location of his victim, but Luther lets him fall anyway. The show then picks up the story seven months later.

The one thing “Luther” and “Broadchurch” have in common is the psychological fragility of their lead detectives, due to a recent case.

But while Alec Hardy is introspective and methodical, John Luther is more like a Sherlock Holmes — he’s hyper-intelligent, cocky and vain and is both a brilliant criminal profiler as well as a savant when it comes to picking up on an interviewee’s subtle gives, or that clue that most would miss. Yet, he also has a sixth sense at times —occasionally remarking, “It doesn’t feel right.”

Wrap those three archetypical traits together with Dirty Harry’s personality and you have John Luther.

“Luther” must have a huge budget, and the cases he’s worked in the three episodes I’ve been able to watch this week are all of Hollywood blockbuster calibre, complete with a healthy does of graphic violence.

Though the stories are successfully packaged in 50-odd minutes, they are the type of cases that, in real life, detectives would take months to crack and it would be their sole career case. That being said, it’s no more unbelievable than most American crime procedurals and it’s magnificently entertaining.

After returning to work, after being cleared of any wrongdoing in Madsen’s fall — Madsen remains in a coma — Luther investigates the murder of a family and their dog.

I may have already said too much for spoiler haters, but I can tell you two more things about the first episode, which are necessary to talk about the ongoing story. First, Luther and his wife have separated and he discovers she’s moved on.

The most interesting thing about the ongoing relationship between John and Zoe Luther (Indira Varma, from “Human Target,” and in the upcoming Season 4 of “Game of Thrones”) is that their relationship becomes less important than the relationship that develops between John and the suspect of the crime in the first episode. That’s what’s most enchanting about the show.

The suspect is revealed to be the killer fairly early in the first episode, but Luther can’t prove it. The equally brilliant criminal does, of course, become a thorn in Luther’s side but also an enigmatic sidekick of sorts.

While you’re sure Luther continues the relationship in the hope that one day he will finally bring the suspect to justice, there is also a bond of respect, professional curiosity and sexual tension.

I know the character continues on in the show beyond the first season’s six episodes and continues to be a main character in the second season, according to a brief search of the Internet.

The cast is rounded out by another half-dozen officers and contacts who work with Luther in each episode.

Like in the first episode, the criminals are identified early in each show, so “Luther” isn’t a Whodunit, and that gives it a bit of a unique feel as John and his team try to prove the crime, find the killer or save the victim before it’s too late.

You can find the first two seasons of “Luther” on Netflix.

Thoughts on binging

While I’m enjoying my mini “Luther” marathon, I have to say it’s great to remember how natural suspense builds when you’re forced to wait a week or so for the next instalment of a drama, like I’ve had to with “Broadchurch.”

The fact that Netflix is releasing its increasingly growing catalogue of original material in bulk signals just how much people enjoy binge watching (watching several episodes back to back) as the medium of TV continues to evolve.

I’m curious how this phenomenon will change the medium, and if a show will figure out how to use this structure as a way to tell stories in a different way.

If you have thoughts on the evolution of television as a medium, or want to

recommend a show, drop Dave Bartlett a line at talkingtelevision@gmail.com.

Organizations: BBC, Netflix

Geographic location: Baltimore, Hollywood

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