DVD FACEOFF Review: Idris Elba’s LUTHER vs 55 DEGREES NORTH

I just watched the 1st season of the BBC show LUTHER, and I have to admit to addictively enjoying it for the great majority of its run.

It is very unusual for me to review a series and go into specifics, because I avoid such reviews myself. I don’t like spoilers, I like to go into something fresh. All I need to know is if you liked something or not, and general reasons why, I don’t need a play by play.

Unfortunately LUTHER is one of those rare shows that requires more detail, than I typically like to give when reviewing a show. This detail necessary in order to relate accurately my feelings on the show’s 1st season.

I will attempt to be as general as possible, but there are spoilers below. So for those looking to avoid all spoilers and just get the gist of my feel on this show, just jump to the last paragraph.

The first thing that has to be said is, I think with a lesser actor in the lead role the show would have sunk under its weight of…excess. Its extremes pushing it dangerously close toward parody and the farcical. Like one actor states when describing the show, ‘it’s not realism, it’s arched to the point of theatrics’, and needs especially capable actors to ground this.

And they pull that off spectacularly for most of the episodes that make up season 1 of LUTHER.

The high point of course being the lead. Idris Elba is one of the best and most commanding actors of his generation, and none of those gifts are wasted in this series, about a London Inspector Detective, a monster hunter at a cross-roads. He brings a nuanced strength and believability to a role, that as stated pivots wildly between the understated and the monstrous.

The episodes ramping up till # 5 which is the most outrageous episode of the run, an amazing hour of television, packing more delirious ups and downs then in a typical season of most shows, or in most 2 hour movies for that matter.

Part of the jaw dropping nature of it, is the irrational actions of a main character, who to cover up a minor crime, compounds it with a blood bath that makes no sense. So part of the strength of that episode is its nonsensical nature, the audience can’t keep up because it is irrational.

Episode 5 is clearly influenced by the 1st season of 24, so those holding this up as British television’s originality over American television, would be incorrect. But while not original, the twist and turns of LUTHER are unexpected and for the most part well done.

However it doesn’t work quite as well here as in 24, because that betrayal, that Greek tragedy reveal comes out of nowhere here, and is not really supported in anything covered in the brief season of LUTHER. So everything rests on the final episode to give some perspective to the lunacy of episode 5, and that simply does not happen.

The last episode, episode 6, the season conclusion, instead leaves a taste of ashes in my mouth. The show LUTHER perhaps being more appropriately named after a different historical and Literary figure, Job. Since the trials of Job are what they put Idris Elba’s character through.

If anything the season ender is too steeped in such broad melodrama and theatrics, and strains suspension of disbelief too far. I’m willing to meet a show half way, but this episode went off the rails in terms of poor justifications and even poorer character actions/decisions.

This final episode steeped in what can be called, I think accurately, moronic actions from all involved, including Luther, especially the supposed brilliant Luther. As one character states “you’re not acting in a reasonable way’ and that’s the mantra for the last two episodes of LUTHER for all the characters. They are all written as caricatures of people, rather than real 3 dimensional personalities, their actions coming off as inane and contrived, to steamroll viewers to the series protracted and unsatisfying conclusion.

For a show that prides itself on being innovative, the finale is largely a very idiotic and moronic episode,that does not do justice to what has come before. The plotting is unlikely and haphazard at best, and the cliffhanger denouement… lacking.

It is insultingly stupid to be blunt. Here we have a character supposedly one of the best detectives and his female ally, one of the most brilliant sociopaths, and the best plan they could come up with, to trap the end game villain, is arranging a meeting in full view of snipers, and just hoping on absolute luck to escape without being shot or taken into custody by police!?. Really? That’s your master plan? It is moronic.

And the purpose of this suicide mission? To allow a civilian, someone who has no interest in believing the protagonist’s protestations of innocence to help save the day? And the civilian not only buys it but agrees to commit a felony. Agrees to walk into police headquarters, sneak unnoticed into the police locker room, break into a locker and find diamonds (Diamonds that somehow Luther magically guesses the location of. Guessing exactly where the villain is keeping them. Really??? Talk about plot contrivance), and get out without being noticed or stopped.

Really?

I do respect Neil Cross for creating this series/character, but I just think he wrote himself into a brick wall, and just couldn’t write himself out of it and ended up with a very, very flawed and contrived final episode.

I mean it is absolute dreck, if you take half a second to consider it. It is an incoherent muddied mess. And this is followed up by the third ludicrousness, plot idiocy/contrivance, of telling the bad guy about the theft before you know it has been pulled off.

Really? Come on!

Thus giving the bad guy time to try and stop the theft. And all these mistakes and suicide by cop ideas avoided, the final purpose is to lure the villain to a location so you can catch him confessing on tape??

That’s your brilliant idea???

A confession that is completely inadmissible, as the very show illustrates in episode 5, how audio recordings can be manipulated, and are worthless in and of themselves.

So the whole endgame is a tissue of faulty logic and questionable dumb luck.

And the culmination of this episode’s stupidity, and what really just annoyed me and soured me above everything else, is Luther has the upper hand on the monster that has done all this damage, and ends up talking himself out of that upper-hand and into receiving a butt whupping, that engenders him needing to be saved… again, by his homicidal female ally.

I think Neil Cross progressively writing not only the series as a whole, but his lead character specifically, less convincingly with each episode.,

And to add to the issues, let’s ignore little common sense things that would have made more… well sense, in proving the protagonist’s innocence and the other person’s guilt; cell phone records, and geo-location of cell phone signals just to name one option.

As the show takes pains to point out, this is a monitored, near Orwellian 21st century Britain, where everything is seen, and everything recorded. These are 21st century detectives. So if they couldn’t pull actual recordings of crucial conversations between Luther and the Killer, at least the who, when , where of these calls is something they can pull. Luther’s cell phone was in use miles away at the time of the death he’s accused of . And a triangulation of other cell records would probably prove where the real criminal was at the time of all three unsolved murders of Episode #5. Thus giving the besieged protagonist reasonable doubt if nothing else, to help at least sway his Chief Detective to his side.

Just simple common sense stuff like that is ignored in favor of hysterical and nonsensical plot contrivances. And obviously this didn’t bother some, as the first season was well received, but as I stated… for me the season finale left the taste of ashes in my mouth.

And obsessing on that ending, (Spoilers)Comeon he should have at least shot the villain in the knees to shut him up if nothing else, rather than ending up punked on the wrong end of a knife. I hate these filmic cliches of turning your back on the villain or letting down your guard etc. I don’t find it gripping or good writing, I find it boring and to be cliched, hack writing.

That kind of writing comes off as an insult to my intelligence, and just ended up unduly sullying a show, that for most of the season I was quite behind.

There’s supposedly a 2nd season now available, and I’m lukewarm on investing the time to see it, but I will. Mostly to see if series creator Neil Cross imbues that with less of the lunacy and idiocy that marred for me the culmination of season 1, and can recapture the strengths of series 1.

So all that said I do recommend Season 1 of LUTHER, unsatisfying end acknowledged, the first 5 episodes of season 1 are worth the price of admission.

And to be fair I’m only this disappointed in the ending, because of how impressed I was with the shows buildup, highlighted by great cinematography, excellent soundtrack, impressive montage sequences (I love the opening credit sequence and the theme song), and of course for the most part… stellar performances and direction. Final Grade: B.

*****

And if you like LUTHER I would direct you to a similar, but I feel superior BBC police procedural, the little seen but riveting 55 DEGREES NORTH.

A show that ran for a brief two seasons, it eschews the brutal and tortured extremes of LUTHER, to instead be a lowkey tale, of a small English countryside police force.

Don Gilet and the striking Dervla Kirwan (that’s a lot of woman! :) Please excuse that bit of sexism, but easy on the eyes… she is :) ), headlining a show that is some odd mating of Moonlighting meets Homicide meets Diagnosis Murder, while being quite a unique and original take on a police procedural.

No serial killers here, these are more prosaic crimes, but the show, in an age of grim and gritty, is all the more welcome for that light touch. And the final episode ties everything up with quite an enjoyable ending. 55 DEGRESS NORTH
comes highly recommended. The full show is available on DVD. B+/A-.