There's no shortage of TV shows centered around crime-solving detectives these days. But even for someone who's a fan of the genre, these shows all tend to look the same: bland, predictable, and conveniently safe for a broadcast network. Those in search of something different need only look across the pond to find a refreshing take on the familiar.
British series play by a different set rules and have far shorter runs than their American counterparts. One British drama in particular has captured the attention of an audience who has been craving something new: Luther, the different sort of detective show that genre fans have been waiting for. It stars Idris Elba (The Wire, Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom) as detective chief inspector (DCI) John Luther, whose passion for police work bleeds into his myriad personal problems. Here's what makes Luther break the detective show mold.
1. It's a Procedural That's Not a Procedural
We call the typical detective shows that center around a "case-of-the-week" procedurals. The fun of a procedural stems from the fact that there is some degree of resolution every week — a crime gets solved. Luther takes advantage of the strengths of a procedural by splitting screen time between this "case-of-the-week" and a more involved B storyline that stretches across multiple episodes. (Other procedurals certainly have B stories, but they don't typically run through consecutive episodes in the way that Luther's do.) Luther’s intriguing B storylines often leave cliffhangers that keep us coming back for more, while still offering us the resolution of the A storyline. Luther gives us the best of both worlds.
2. A Lot Happens in a Short Time
Clocking in at only fourteen total episodes, Luther has to cover a lot of ground in a very short amount of time. In an American series, plot twists and betrayals are often stretched out over the course of eight or nine seasons. But Luther's compression makes for a far more intense drama with a relentless pace. In more standard procedural detective shows, most episodes fit a mold; those that break this — through events like a main character's spouse dying — become special "event" episodes. In Luther, almost every episode is an event episode.
3. There Are No Rules
The freedom allowed by the BBC format (that is, shows with short runs that don't require having actors locked in to multi-year contracts) means that Luther can surprise us from any angle. Regular cast members can become victims, or even killers. Characters' roles are ever-shifting, and the victim of one episode might become the villain of the next. That's not something you'd be likely to find in your average NCIS episode. Where a regular procedural is predictable, Luther can kill its off main cast like it's set in Westeros.
4. There Is No Repeated Plot Structure
Most detective shows are as reliable as a Swiss watch. Luther, on the other hand, manages never to repeat any standard plot structure. Any episode may end on a completely unexpected, unresolved note. As such, the audience can never really know when a storyline is about to wrap up. This strict denial of typical structure makes it so we never get comfortable — or bored.
5. It Takes Full Advantage of the Medium
While other detective shows might approach their subject matter with a lighter (or even campy) tone, Luther uses its platform to delve into the core of human emotion. It takes full advantage of cinematography, editing, and music to connect with the audience in a powerful way. Season One, for example, features a gripping sequence of the aftermath of a killing set to Sia's Breathe Me. This breaking from a traditional score doesn't fit the mold of most detective shows. And it's just one example of how Luther uses its medium to achieve maximum impact.
6. Luther is a Flawed Hero Who Never Gets an Easy Decision
At the center of Luther is great conflict, the kind of conflict that the audience gets to feel. The show never presents its titular character with easy choices; Luther's decisions routinely pit him between rules he's already broken and his need to bring someone to justice. All good shows have conflict, but Luther differs in that the conflict of one episode informs and even complicates that of the next. All his choices have uncomfortable consequences, and as we follow Luther from one difficult situation to another, we see that he's often made things even harder for himself. That's what keeps us coming back for more.