TV Review: Idris Elba Does Riveting Work on Daring ‘Luther’

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CHICAGO – How do those guys on “C.S.I.” and “Criminal Minds” sleep at night? Do they? BBC America’s riveting “Luther” presents a man torn apart by the violence he’s prevented along with how much it has destroyed his personal life. With an incredibly strong (and Emmy-nominated) central performance by Idris Elba (“The Wire”), this dark crime drama returns tonight, September 28th, 2011 for another round of daring questions. If you stare into the darkness, how do you avoid becoming it? Television Rating: 4.0/5.0
Television Rating: 4.0/5.0

I’m pretty up to speed with my lunatics.” The season premiere of “Luther” opens with a description of our central investigator over scenes of him getting up in the morning and starting his day in a way that is probably pretty typical — Russian Roulette. To say Luther is going through dark times wouldn’t even be accurate. His adult life is a never-ending “dark time.” What I like about “Luther” is the willingness to create a strong central character who may not be exactly likable but does a job that you or I wouldn’t dare even try. He is the best at what he does but that makes his life nearly unbearable. the season premiere of “Luther,” airing tonight on BBC America, is brutal with multiple murders, a young girl trapped in a pornography ring, and extreme violence. Luther is the man willing to walk through Hell to make sure its demons don’t escape.

Photo credit: BBC America

BBC programs don’t work like typical American ones. They are shorter seasons and often done more like films than what we’ve come to expect from the broadcast networks. Hence, the first season of “Luther” being eligible for Best Mini-Series (and Elba being nominated for Actor in that category) at this year’s Emmys. While I do agree that it’s difficult to compare what Elba is doing in six or four-episode seasons to, say, what Kiefer Sutherland did over “24,” it’s kind of false to call “Luther” a mini-series. It’s a drama with a brief run each season.

Photo credit: BBC America

And this brief run is only four episodes — two stories split in two parts — which, I guess, makes it like a pair of two-hour movies and so correctly categorized for the Emmys…it’s complicated. The first episode begins a tale of a twisted serial killer who seems to be taunting Luther and the police. He smiles at security cameras. He lingers near the scene of the crime. He seems to want to be caught. Meanwhile, Luther is approached by an old friend who needs help with a girl who has been forced (or has she?) into producing disturbing porno films.

Of course, the lingering effects of the end of last season partially define the new one. John Luther’s wife is dead, killing by his best friend, who was, in turn, killed by the psychopathic Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). Naturally, Luther has been destroyed by this. He was a man on the edge of darkness due to the demands of his profession who seems to have simply jumped in after what happened in the first series. Can he continue to work with the weight of what’s happened on his shoulders?

Naturally, this gives the great Idris Elba a lot of acting material on which to chew. He does even better work here than in season one, for which he should have won an Emmy. This is quite simply one of the best performances currently on TV. It’s riveting stuff. You can’t take your eyes off of him. I can’t say enough about what he does here. He’s giving one of those performances in which he not only makes the right choices, he makes ones that lesser actors wouldn’t even consider. He’s mesmerizing.

Everything else still needs a bit of work to rise to the level of Elba’s performance. The writing of the secondary characters is a bit cliched and thin, especially when compared to the subtlety brought to the piece by the great star of “The Wire,” given his best character since that landmark HBO show. It may be a torturous life for John Luther, but one hopes that the show that bears his name doesn’t go away for quite some time if just to see how Elba grows with “Luther.”

“Luther” stars Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Dermot Crowley, Warren Brown, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Paul McGann, Pam Ferris, and Kierston Wareing. It returns for a second series on BBC America on September 28th, 2011 at 9m CST. content director Brian Tallerico

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