Review: Luther 1×1

He's a maverick cop who doesn't play by the rules. Oh dear


In the UK: Tuesdays, 9pm, BBC1/BBC HD

I know, I know. Reviewing a British TV programme that isn’t Doctor Who related. That’s odd for me, isn’t it?

But this one’s got Idris Elba in it! Woo hoo! He was in The Wire and Ultraviolet. Hopes, as they say, were raised, and I watched a British TV show.

All the same, my hopes weren’t that high as – and stop this if you’ve heard this one before – he plays a maverick policeman who doesn’t stick to the rules, has an unhappy personal life and whose bosses want him brought to book.

Suddenly, not quite so promising is it? Hell, let’s just call him Monkfish instead of Luther.

A dark psychological crime drama starring Idris Elba as Luther, a man struggling with his own terrible demons, who might be as dangerous as the depraved murderers he hunts.

Episode 1: Luther, back from suspension, must solve a seemingly perfect double murder.

Is it any good?
The first episode fits into more or less three sections. In the brief first part, we have MonkfishLuther (Elba), a DCI who’s a bit reckless, chasing after a paedophile serial killer (yes, but what are his good points? Does he like animals? Do tell) to find out where he’s stashed away a young girl. After getting the information, Luther lets bad man fall from a great height to his (seeming) doom.

Then we have part two, when Luther, after an extended convalescence, returns to the job to investigate the murder of a happily married couple. It’s clear, almost instantly, that it’s the grown-up child prodigy daughter who’s done the crime – now Luther has to prove it.

And then in part three, said daughter is released by the police and she and Luther play cat and mouse.

The backdrop of these three parts is Luther’s personal life and attempts to reconcile with his wife separated wife (Indira Varma) who’s decided she quite likes another guy (Paul McGann).

The three parts
Now, part one was awful. As well as making no sense, it was abysmally directed, a non-stop series of jump cuts mid-sentence designed by the director to demonstrate Luther’s loopiness at this point. This is off-putting and shows no trust in either the script or Elba’s ability to show this character trait through a mechanism known as ‘acting’. And Elba is very, very good in this – totally different, as he is in every role.

However, part two lulled me into a false sense of security, since it was a very much more measured, deliberate piece, with Luther’s interrogation of evil daughter very well handled, clever and interesting.

Once free into the outside world of part three, however, it becomes stupid again, with Luther going off the rails again, and evil daughter being as evil as possible in a response to Luther’s goading. It had glimmers of clever, including the daughter’s evil plan and Luther’s deduction of it, but not much.

Similarly, the backdrop of Luther’s personal life is a mass of cliché, poor dialogue and improbable situations. Even the normally reliable Varma and McGann wobble a bit when presented with the daftness they have to go through. Yes, he’s a cop, but why would Varma want to see him ever again once he’d come into her office and her house and terrorised her, even kicking in a door?

Where the show is good is the one-on-one work between Luther and the evil daughter. It’s creepy in a Hannibal Lecter kind of way, even if the descent into quoting Occam’s razor and talk about dark matter feels more like a desperate attempt to give the show an intellectual quality that it can’t support. It’s also good at dealing with modern policing procedures – or at least mentioning them – and Elba is fantastic. And although the initial opening sequence is misjudged, the rest of the direction is actually very good with some lovely compositions.

But the list of things wrong with the show is long: the hackneyed maverick cop stick, the idea that cops and criminals are two sides of the same coin, anything at all to do with relationships, Saskia Reeves’ (Elba’s boss) accent, the direction of action sequences, the things Luther does to bait evil daughter, and the lack of a decent plan to respond to evil daughter’s responses. And I’m only just starting.

The rest of the series will have both series arc – (spoiler) the continuing battle between evil daughter and Luther – and standalone stories. The idea, as with the first episode, is that Columbo-style, we’ll know more or less from the beginning of the story who did the crime and it’s going to be about how Luther and his team prove whodunnit.

Given how weak his efforts were this week – albeit with the occasional flash of brilliance – I’m going to guess it’s mostly going to be Elba running around and have lots of intense chats with the criminals, rather than a masterpiece of deduction (as per Columbo). Nevertheless, despite the clumsiness of this first episode, there are enough good things about the show – most of them Elba – that I’m going to stick with it for now.

Here’s a clip from episode two.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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