Luther -- TV Review

Strong writing and a fine cast, especially "The Wire's" Idris Elba as the title character, make this grim export from Britain a compelling, intelligent cop show. 

A police procedural with a black British detective in the lead will seem exotic to many American viewers, but what's most striking about the Idris Elba starrer "Luther" is that it's -- finally! -- a cop show devoted fully to the investigation and to the characters doing the investigating. It's not just all about the lab work.

A typical episode's opening scene shows a sequence of extreme or disturbing violence, after which the killer or criminal -- whom we see more or less clearly -- walks away, with little or no explanation. So the typical element of the mystery is solved in the first scene. 

We then cut to Detective John Luther (Elba) brooding on the case, sometimes with his associates. 

Elba, best known as Stringer Bell, the drug dealer with entrepreneurial aspirations in "The Wire," plays a brilliant, driven detective who's both hyper-rational -- he notices subtle details of body language or discrepancies of expression that others overlook -- and overly emotional. He gets carried away in bringing killers to justice as well as in trying to woo back his estranged wife, Zoe (Indira Varma), sometimes resorting to violence in both missions. Some of Luther's colleagues are in awe of him, like his babyfaced partner, Justin Ripley (Warren Brown); others are suspicious. (One describes him as having "a history of instability.") He carries a huge suitcase of guilt around with him as well, which one of the characters exploits mercilessly. 

Elba, who also played a charismatic corporate tool in a few episodes of NBC's "The Office," is the perfect choice for the title role: It's hard to conceive of the show without him. With his massive frame and introspective bearing, he projects strength, empathy and a complicated inwardness. His emotional and intellectual process sometimes provides the kind of mystery that the identity of the killer would offer in a more conventional cop show.

The series and its London setting will seem both disorienting and fresh to American viewers. Almost all the criminals, for instance, are white. For more than a decade, U.S. readers have consumed detective novels with a black lead character, but even lovers of, say, Walter Mosley's Easy Rawlins books might be surprised to see a program in which race rarely plays an explicit role.

One of the show's strangest bits of storytelling is the way the killer from the first episode, twisted genius Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), stays in the program, maintaining a complicated relationship with Luther. She's not the only oddity. Although they somehow fit the show's dark poetry and fascination with psychology, the villains might be the program's least convincing figures: Despite powerful, in some cases risky acting, these brainy, educated characters pursue their own creepy religious or political programs in ways that often seem so neatly Freudian they become cartoonish.

The show was created and written by Neil Cross, a British television writer (he worked on the BAFTA-winning spy show "Spooks") and Booker Prize-nominated novelist. Although "Luther" is no "Wire" -- what is? -- the pedigree shows; the writing is strong without drawing attention to itself. No stupid cop-show banter or monologuing villains.

Part of what sticks in the mind about the show is its grimness. Its tone is understated, its palette mostly browns and blues and grays, music is used sparingly, and it's almost entirely without humor. But the show is as gripping -- as brooding, smart and as unconventionally soulful -- as the Massive Attack song it lays over the credits.