To all of those who have been experiencing withdrawal symptoms while the BBC tries to figure out what to do with their boneheaded SF-action comedy Torchwood, I have good news. You can satisfy the craving by watching BBC1′s galactically stupid Luther, or — as we’ve taken to calling it — Loofah. The first episode of the six part series featured the usual BBC drama gaffes (overdirection, rampant cliches, clumsy storytelling), but as soon as our maverick hero destroyed a balsa-wood door in a fit of thespian rage, we were hooked. To our delight, it has become even more unhinged and bizarre as the weeks have progressed, though there are concerns that our joy will be short-lived. I’ll get to that later…
Big Driis, or Idris Elba as he is sometimes known, is talked about in hushed tones whenever the topic turns to The Wire, though I find the tones are a lot less hushed when you watch him in tripe like The Reaping or Obsessed. Luther is another example: he’s doing a LOT of acting, but I’m not sure whether it’s actually any good. There are so many tics and bizarre choices that I’m beginning to wonder if Driis can inherit the mantle of UK’s David Caruso. He’s just as compelling a visual presence, and almost as entertaining.
The show itself is just as mannered as CSI: Miami, pitched at the same hysterical level of dramatic overkill, almost to the level of parody (in fact I am now sure that CSI: Miami really is meant to be a parody: the bear attack in a recent episode convinced me). It’s also an exercise in attention-seeking style over substance. Instead of day-glo orange filters and characters being filmed through about 20 panes of slowly shifting glass, Luther is filmed in shades of grey to match its “gritty” and “edgy” atmosphere. I can imagine someone on the showrunning team saying that restricted palette represents the shades of moral ambiguity in the show. Take it from me, this is no justification for the obnoxious off-kilter compositions: an aesthetic choice whose only merits are that they distract you from the muddled storytelling.
Much as it would be nice to credit Luther with asking big questions about morality, it is merely replicating the dramatic beats of better stories without understanding how they illuminate the human condition. Like a child re-enacting his/her favourite film, Luther pretends to be a peek into the dark heart of someone whose moral compass is going awry. Regrettably it’s a long way from the genuinely involving questions thrown up by The Shield (a show that played with audience expectations of its protagonists better than anything else I’ve ever seen). It’s closer to the kind of storytelling sophistication that thinks it’s okay to have the mustache-twirling villain say, “We’re not that different, you and I.” In fact, there’s a recurring character that is there just to make this point every 20 minutes: evil physicist Alice Morgan, played as a hilarious Anthony Hopkins/Lauren Bacall hybrid by Ruth Wilson.
It’s also a primer in how to write drama for British TV. The latest episode featured these important lessons:
How not to describe a terribly “edgy” murder using grown-up words:
Ripley: She was found on the banks of a canal in Birmingham. Exsanuated [sic] and genitally mutilated.
How to establish character in one line:
Luther: Benny, appreciate you coming in.
Benny: It’s okay, I was just immersed in a world of King Crimson and World of Warcraft. (We would have also accepted, “I was just watching Wrath of Khan while working on my biography of Holger Czukay,” “I was just in a Halo 3 multiplayer match with my friends MalReynolds2828 and ValisIsTheTruth,” or “It’s okay, my 9/11 Truth bookclub got cancelled when one of our group got a call about a UFO sighting in Caversham.”)
How not to react to the aftermath of a brutal beating:
Luther: [sigh] …Oh dear. (This is insufficiently “edgy”, Loofah.)
How to explain to someone why you had a gang of female hoodies happy-slap them:
Alice Morgan: Why, I couldn’t help myself.
Mark North: I don’t believe that. See, I don’t think you of all people ever do anything unless you decide to do it.
Alice Morgan: No it’s true. I’m a bit like that. Bit random. Certainly… kooky.
Mark North: Kooky…
Alice Morgan: Absolutely…
How to establish that you are not afraid of appearing like the creepiest bastard ever during a conversation in your weird serial killer shop:
Luther: Five-’ahndred quid, for a poem ‘and-illustrated by the Yorkshire Rippah. 750 quid for a lettah from the Rippah to a female correspondent. Wow.
Lucien Burgess: That includes a small self-portrait. Sutcliffe. Snuggling up to a woman. Large breasted.
How to threaten a bent coppah with the threat of imprisonment:
Internal affairs-type cop Schenk (the fifth member of the Three Stooges troupe): I didn’t want to come for you, John, but they sent me to do a job. And if they send for me again, I will come again, and I will take you down, even if it means that I won’t be able look myself in the eye afterwards.
There’s this brilliant exchange at the start of this clip. The rest is a woeful attempt at creating a webisode to flesh out the story, featuring Schenk really enjoying his drink:
It all makes the risible, overrated Dexter look like Michael Mann’s glacially perfect Manhunter. Even worse, in the latest episode we see another hammy super-genius villain, the improbably named Lucian Burgess — a blood-drinking, Aleister-Crowley-worshipping mad man who kidnaps women, drains their blood, drinks it, and then freezes them to death. He also licks faces, giggles manically, and has hissy fits whenever he is thwarted by our hero. That’s all quite amusing, except for the vile, leering shots of his terrified victim, a woman with absolutely no agency, who spends the first half of the episode cowering in terror and screaming, before turning up dead in the final half.
It’s certainly “edgy”, and I’m sure the showrunning team were pleased with themselves for their narrative daring, but what about the fact that her death is nothing more than a device to ask even more shallow questions about Loofah’s corrupted sense of morality as he frames Burgess for the crime due to the lack of evidence? The victim, whose terror has been documented in even more shots than there are slow pans across the London skyline (i.e. a lot), is nothing more than a prop, a corpse in a box in the corner, ignored by our hero and his nemesis as they bicker about justice and the evil that men do. It doesn’t so much leave a nasty taste in the mouth as it does piss in it with arrogant disdain while quoting from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
This is a pretty big factor in whether or not Luther inherits the Torchwood crown as worst drama on UK TV, and not the title of most odious: whether it can dial back the humourless, unpleasant tone and just deliver the requisite poor storytelling and over-eager filmmaking of our favourite Welsh SF show. Torchwood was gloriously awful but strangely lovable. Right now, Luther is on the verge of being unwatchably nasty, and a catastrophic mistake by the BBC. Let’s hope they pull it back from the brink in the latter half of the season.