Tuesday’s premiere episode of Luther, series three, contained some jump scares which were so signposted that I was left kicking myself for falling for them. During the first five minutes, a woman comes home from work, makes a cup of tea and goes to bed. Nothing happens, and yet the tension is unbearable. Every slasher flick ever made tells us exactly what’s about to happen, but the pressure is ratcheted to such a degree that the reveal comes as no less of a shock.
It’s business as usual for DCI John Luther. His professional attention is split between a human interest case and a mad-as-a-box-of-frogs serial killer. Looking like a surlier Nick Hewer, DSU Martin Schenk is still pulling the strings. Erin Gray returns to prove that hell hath no fury like a DS scorned, and convinces faithful lapdog Justin Ripley to turn on his master with a little too much ease. New love interest Mary Day is so squeaky clean that she will either turn out to be a nasty piece of work, or be killed off in a grisly manner.
The jump scare wasn’t the only overused trope on show. The opening shot of an explosion-ignoring DCI John Luther, emerging in slo-mo from a burning factory, would probably make Michael Bay think, “this is a bit much really.”
Clumsy cop dialogue, like “I want this one done by the book” and “don’t make me regret this,” raise the hackles. Like every self-respecting psychopath, the serial killer has a nutty room, replete with victim montage wall (the Met could save a lot of time and bother poring over cold case files, by targeting suspects who seem to go through a significant amount of toner). Luther is positively riddled with cop show clichés, but then it always has been.
What gives it the edge over other cliché-ridden police dramas are the little touches, like the throwaway shot of Alice Morgan’s postcards and Jenny’s framed David Bowie photo, or the over-corpse discussion on whether Siouxsie and the Banshees were post-punk or goth. But what elevates Luther to greatness is Idris Elba. The maverick-cop with demons has been done to death, but Elba avoids sentimentality, and is utterly mesmerising. Luther is the natural descendant of Jimmy McGovern’s seminal Cracker. Like Robbie Coltrane’s Fitz, John Luther is a character so compelling, so filled with supressed emotion that it’s impossible to stop watching.
One way or another, the story of John Luther will come to an end with this series. I’ll hold judgement until the series has finished, but I have a feeling that three feature-length episodes would have been more satisfying than the four hour-long segments that we’re getting. Like Benedict Cumberbatch before him, the hiatus between series two and three has seen Elba’s career move on from the confines of the small screen. Prometheus may have provided a better payday, but it was career-defining portrayals of Stringer Bell and John Luther, and his reputation for television drama of unparalleled excellence, that put Elba in the big leagues.