Luther split audiences when it aired last summer, but I quickly warmed to this detective drama's heightened reality and desire to have ghoulish fun within a normally staid genre. In some ways it's even more joyously absurd than the modernized Sherlock, which debuted around the same time. Luther doesn't exist to be an accurate portrayal of modern-day policing, it exists to entertain its audience like a pulp airport novel. It has its ludicrous moments (that aren't always intentional), but they're kept oddly plausible thanks to Idris Elba's magnetic, brooding, swaggering performance as the eponymous lawman. If you treat Luther as you would a live-action graphic novel (the opening titles are animated almost as a nudge to the ribs*), then it's a great deal of outrageous fun in a genre that's often very po-faced and dreary.
It's been a year since the climactic events of series 1, where Luther's estranged wife Zoe was murdered by "dirty cop" Ian Reed, who was himself later killed by Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), a charming sociopath Luther developed a bizarre connection with after she got away with murdering her parents. Since then, Alice has been arrested and detained in a psychiatric hospital for evaluation; Luther's only recently returned to work to investigate cold cases, thanks to the support of his former inquisitor Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley); "rising star" DS Ripley's (Warren Brown) been demoted to a uniformed job for his part in the mess; and Luther's developed an unexpected bond with his late-wife's boyfriend Mark North (Paul McGann), whom he now plays chess with. The latter was a very surprising development, and feels like it was the only way to keep McGann involved in the series, but we'll see how it plays out. I'm predicting Mark and Alice will be the angel and demons perched on Luther's shoulders over the remaining episodes.
This opening two-part story was another of the show's brazen crime stories, involving a violent maniac called Cameron Pell (Life On Mars' Lee Ingleby) who wears a creepy Mr Punch mask as he brutally kills women. Luther was quickly offered a job on the new Serious & Serial Unit by Schenk, and was quick to deduce that the perpetrator has a fascination with folklore and mythology, intending to become exalted as a modern-day myth through his crimes. In a small subplot, Luther met Caroline Jones (Kierston Wareing), the wife of a criminal who was caught by Luther, who blames Luther for how her family was subsequently torn apart. In particular, her daughter Jenny (Aimee Ffion Edwards) is on the brink of being lost to the seedy world of gonzo pornography, and Luther's guilty enough to ensure that doesn't happen. Throw in DS Erin Gray (Survivors' Nikki Amuka-Bird), an ambitious woman who's part of Luther's new team but refuses to risk her career in the same way DS Ripley did, and you have enough ingredients for something that feels refreshed but hasn't strayed far from what was enjoyable about series 1.
The actual storyline was pretty thin, mainly because Luther doesn’t always take the typical approach to detective dramas by keeping the week's criminal a secret. Mr Punch wasn't an inscrutable killer to be exposed, he was a known boogieman to capture. That means the show isn't so focused on detective work, but more on cat-and-mouse thrills: like Luther nearly catching Pell, only to have a can of mace spray emptied into his face; or Pell taunting the authorities by filming a random doorstep attack and streaming it on the internet.
Plus there's the Silence Of The Lambs gender-reversal of Luther and Alice's abnormal relationship. Ruth Wilson is absolutely fantastic fun as the pouting serial killer (resembling an evil schoolgirl, as drawn by Quentin Blake), and arguably even more unnerving now Alice is under lock and key. It's here that Luther showed its hand as a televised pulp crime novel, as it's so clearly removed from reality and instead edging towards an urban mythology. Luther (his name not dissimilar to Lucifer) is a good man with streak of vigilantism coursing through his veins (signified by his red tie?), and bewitched by the devilish Alice Morgan—so much so that he's helping her escape from the asylum by tossing a half-eaten apple into the facility's garden that contains a tool to aide a breakout. Apple, garden... ring any bells?
Overall, this opening hour (of a truncated four-part series, telling two stories) was exactly the kind of muscularly told and deliciously silly cop drama we've come to expect from Luther. If you value realism above all else in this genre, you may spend most episodes gnashing your teeth in frustration—particularly because the tone feels intended to convince you Luther's gritty and accurate. But it's clearly not. It's an adult comic strip with Idris Elba as the brooding nucleus keeping everything from spinning apart, and if you accept that ambition it's crazy fun. It's Hellblazer-meets-Millennium-meets-Prime Suspect.
written by Neil Cross / directed by Sam Miller / 14 June 2011 / BBC One
* Not to mention the fact the BBC have released this tie-in comic.