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BBC’s cop drama ‘Luther’ returns, as spellbinding as ever

Idris Elba stars as a detective with plenty of demons on BBC America’s “Luther.’’ Idris Elba stars as a detective with plenty of demons on BBC America’s “Luther.’’ (BBC)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 28, 2011

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The first season of “Luther’’ has become legendary. Like the early years of “Dexter,’’ it was a terrifying thriller, a morally playful character study, and a darkly stylish vision. With the unique cat-and-mouse rapport between Idris Elba’s Detective John Luther of London and Ruth Wilson’s brilliant murderer Alice Morgan, the six-episode series was a riveting game of high stakes wit. Rent that baby, if you haven’t seen it yet.

Tonight, “Luther’’ returns for a new four-episode season, and it, too, packs a punch. The show, at 10 on BBC America, is as creepy as TV gets, with Luther going after a masked killer whose cowardice keeps pushing him to greater, more awful extremes. No, the new “Luther’’ isn’t as revelatory as the first round, nor does it unfold with the same tragic inevitability in terms of Luther’s personal life. Some plot connectors are shaky, others nonexistent. I promise you will roll your eyes at least once. And yet, each hour is so spellbinding, you may not realize you’re leaving grip marks on your couch.

Luther is the typical roguish cop, except that he’s tortured by - and seduced by - demons. Those demons help him get inside the skin of murderers; he intuits their next violent moves, because he knows their thinking. But he’s never too far from a nervous breakdown, as he lets himself get sucked into cases that he knows will compromise his humanity. In fact, he’s like Dexter in the way he takes the law into his own hands, cutting corners because he knows the rules can be impotent in the face of anarchic violence. But he is more worn down and emotionally strafed by his work than Dexter, who looks boyishly fresh after a late night hanging with his Dark Passenger.

Elba, best known in the US for his work as Stringer Bell on “The Wire,’’ makes the role work beautifully. He doesn’t play

a damaged man, indicating interior conflict; he embodies untethered willpower as he rushes the plot, a guy who’s too much on the ball for his own good. He chases criminals like addicts chase a fix - desperately, shamelessly, unhappily. His overtired energy grounds the series, keeping it from falling apart during the more absurd twists.

Luther continues to be drawn to Alice, who killed her parents and others last season; the cop and the killer have a remarkable psychological intimacy, like two sides of the same coin. When she smirks and speaks to him, softly, eloquently, and yet threateningly, she is showing her affection for him. You hang on her every word. Wilson is one of TV’s best villains, and it’s a shame she’s peripheral this season, since Alice is in a mental institution. In one scene, walking away from the building after visiting her, Luther tosses an apple over the wall and Alice picks it up. It’s a nice, elusive flourish that captures their tacit bond, a rare quiet break from the show’s still fantastically tense thrills.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.

LUTHER Starring: Idris Elba, Ruth Wilson, Warren Brown, Dermot Crowley, Paul McGann, Nikki Amuka-Bird

On: BBC America

Time: Tonight, 10-11