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Luther Season 3: TV Review

Luther Season 3 - H 2013
BBC America

The Bottom Line

Idris Elba continues to be fantastic at every step.

Premieres

Tuesday, Sept. 3 (BBC America)

Cast

Idris Elba

Idris Elba returns as John Luther in the latest season of BBC America's British drama.

Anyone who watched the fantastic miniseries (or should we all be using the chic phrase du jour, “limited series”?) Luther the first time around, with its six stunningly great episodes, wanted two things.

They wanted British actor and acclaimed star of The Wire, Idris Elba, to get some love. And they wanted another season. And so they got it — but a scant four episodes. (Luther and Elba have been hit-and-miss when it comes to awards: He won the Golden Globe in 2012, but struck out at the Emmys, after after being nominated -- along with the show, series creator and writer Neil Cross and director Sam Miller that same year).

Maybe because none of those Emmys came through, or, perhaps, because the lust for Luther is insatiable, a third season (which could, allegedly, lead into a big screen film) aired in England over the summer and will premiere on BBC America on Sept. 3.

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If you’ve watched the first two seasons, no doubt you’ve got the date circled. If you haven’t, not only is there still time to catch up but you can conceivably (but inadvisably) skip seasons one and two and start fresh here.

Detective Chief Inspector John Luther is a troubled man. He’s brilliant like Sherlock Holmes, but he’s as troubled (maybe even more so) than Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison (Helen Mirren). Say what you want about the paucity of episodes, the Brits know how to write a very, very screwed up detective dedicated to his or her job at the risk of all else. Where Tennison’s battle with sexism, ageism and whatever else you could find led to bleak periods of hitting the bottle, John Luther is really just a guy who can’t find happiness in his personal life because his professional life dominates all. And there’s this other little bit about a killer named Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) messing with his head (as a detective) and his heart (as a detective who should have known better but couldn’t get out of her clutches).

Elba has been fantastic at every step, taking Cross’ wonderful writing and giving it even more dimensions. Pretty much every character that walks into this miniseries — from the brilliant Wilson to season three’s David O’Hara, who plays an un-retired police investigator obsessed with bringing down Luther -- has given a virtuoso performance. That still holds true.

Some in the British press -- so hell bent on eating their young if given half the chance -- have complained about Luther getting more violent and creepy as the show continues.

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Because season three is as bloody, dense and taught as the first 10 episodes, it wants to ratchet up Luther’s mental duels with happiness and, at the same time, be scary like a horror movie and it is. It’s a far cry from the rush to excess that some of our cousins have painted it.

In fact, season three never disappoints, even when you kind of recoil, as a viewer, at the evil that has landed in Luther’s already complicated life. But it’s not excess that marks Luther’s third season, it’s this overwhelming sense of dread that pervades it. As if nothing the British police could ever do to stop the holy horror from rolling across the secret homes of England weren’t enough, season three kicks off with a more complicated sense of dread out there.

Will it absorb Luther? Of course it will -- because he’s a man who has been haunted by his cases from the first moment he started looking into them. Now that the thematic woes continue into season three, rather than seeing that as a storytelling hindrance -- a dark-minded man finds no happiness outside of his depressing police work -- perhaps more emphasis should be placed on evaluating the mental status of our fictional John Luther.

It’s not good.

He’s got a cold case come to life that’s as twisted as anything he’s seen; he’s got internal affairs on his tale, a suspect partner and a real need to find a soul mate. Maybe, to make Luther more believable to a British audience, he should be free to do his duty with a kind of efficient bad-assery. But what actually makes the character palpably acceptable on these shores is that he truly is great at what he does, but none of that genius comes free from inspection or introspection. That takes an emotional toll. It makes him more human.

But flawed, unhappy and supremely tired is how we like John Luther. We need to see his genius take a hit. Sometimes suffering is the pay-out, even though that makes him more complicit than others in his world. Caring, no matter the toll it takes, is what fuels Luther. Taking the weight of the world off of him doesn’t make him any more likable or relatable. It’s just a reward for being great unto himself. So, in season three, don’t get hung up on Luther trying to find happiness or something silly like that. The man is damaged. Decry that all you want in Britain, but we’ll embrace it.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

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