In America, many of us operate under the assumption that British culture is inherently more sophisticated than ours and adjust our expectations of British television and film accordingly. British actors have dignity and gravitas, and their imports are heavy with stiff-upper-lip costume dramas and drawing-room mysteries that are conspicuously light on the pulp. Americans are supposed to be the vulgar ones, the purveyors of dumb trash. A Fish Called Wanda made all of these differences perfectly clear. (And, in fact, included boorish American Kevin Kline shouting at British stiff John Cleese, “You’re the vulgarian, you fuck!”)
All of which is my long-winded way of saying that Luther, which began its second series tonight on BBC, remains a profoundly vulgar, profoundly stupid, yet utterly compelling show. For much of the first series, it fooled me into believing it was something more highbrow, a knotty cat-and-mouse thriller between Luther, Idris Elba’s cop-on-the-edge, and Alice (Ruth Wilson), the Hannibal Lecter-like killer who played both ally and adversary. When the show settled into cliché-filled case-of-the-week procedurals, I finally realized it was something altogether more ordinary and familiar, a cop show that’s more lurid and “edgy” than, say, something on CBS, but not an altogether different animal.
Series one ended on a cliffhanger, as the fates of all the characters were in question after a bloody showdown on a train platform. Series two opens with the mess sorted out: Luther continues to be employed as Detective Chief Inspector, now in charge of the new Serious and Serial Crimes Unit, which is apparently devoted to investigating the pulpiest, most gimmicky murders in London; Alice resides in a high-security ward, where she’s poised to assist Luther in an unofficial capacity; Luther’s loyal young partner Justin (Warren Brown) has been demoted into uniform duty when the episode opens but swiftly ascends back to his former partnership; Mark, the other man in Luther’s tormented relationship with his now-murdered ex-wife, shares an uneasy friendship with him; and a new young black investigator, Erin, warns Luther that she intends to do everything on the up and up.
And just like that, we’re off to the races with two emerging (though not yet related) subplots. The main thread involves a masked serial killer whose M.O. is to murder people in historic locations around the city, show off for the camera, and issue the refrain, “He is the sunrise. He loves everyone,” a teasing suggestion that these ritualistic deaths are connected to some abstract philosophical mission. In a twist of sorts, Luther is completely upfront about the killer’s identity as Cameron, a former art student and current overeager London history enthusiast who slays a young photographer who rebuffs his advances and makes the mistake of acting shifty in Luther’s presence. So Luther and the gang are going to have some advantages (his face, his personal history and acquaintances, etc.) in hunting him down. And though Cameron may be wily, he’s a different sort of animal than Alice: He’s a classic slasher-movie villain, not a subtle force of evil, and the show seems intent on making him the horror boogeyman he insists on being. Forget the air of sophistication; this season seems poised to shock us like Friday The 13th.
The other, less forgivably ridiculous subplot starts with Caroline (Kierston Wareing)—the wife of a man who killed a hooker, chopped her up, and wound up committing suicide in jail—begging Luther to save her daughter Jenny (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) from a shadowy Internet pornography ring. Jenny’s involved in “death porn,” a sicker-than-sick subgenre that satisfies rape-while-unconscious fetishists. When Luther swings by to talk Jenny out of the business, she fiercely resists, mainly out of fear of reprisal from the scumbags who run the outfit. He impulsively nabs her from their clutches anyway, but slinging her over his shoulder like a misbehaving little girl, setting up the Jenny situation as an off-the-books protection job involving Mark, who rather blankly accepts a Jenny babysitting job while Luther is off doing other things.
By now, Luther’s dark side has become worse than clichéd: Having him hold a revolver to his head within the first 10 minutes is cop-on-the-edge circa 1987, when Mel Gibson seemed at least reasonably suicidal in the first Lethal Weapon movie. Luther works best when Elba is out in the field, intuiting his way through lurid cases and circumventing procedure to follow his own set of rules. With just four episodes total this series, I should hope the other three will follow-through on the set-up rather than reverting to the case-of-the-week dross that bogged down Series One. And with a set-up as clean, pulpy, compelling, and, yes, kinda stupid as this one, it should be a good time.
- No stray observations this week. Everything I wanted to say is in the text above. I’m that good.