Score this one for Britain: While American television's recent attempts to have a black lead in a police procedural have been mixed at best — Forrest Whitaker and Laurence Fishburne's sojourns from movies to the small screen were, pardon the pun, criminally short, while Ice-T and LL Cool J are part of ensemble-based shows — the BBC has been rewarded for sticking by Idris Elba.
Elba, who first gained attention playing Stringer Bell in the seminal cable drama The Wire, earned one of his two Emmy nominations this year for his work as the title character in Luther, which returned to BBC America for its second season last night.
We've written in brief about the show in the past, so here's a primer for new viewers. (Caution: some spoilers ahead.) Much like some of its' American counterparts, Luther is less concerned with whodunit than with how Elba's character goes about sorting his cases. But in a nod toward old-school noir, John Luther, a detective inspector in the London P.D., is unlike other black detectives we've seen in the past on these shores: He's not played as supercool, like Spencer for Hire's Hawk (Avery Brooks); or as professional, like Ice-T's Fin Tutuola from Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
In fact, his passion/obsession with crime fighting has left the rest of Luther's life a shambles: When the series debuted last year, his wife (Indira Varma) had left him and was moving on with a new man; Luther himself was barely back on the job after a traumatic and possibly incriminating incident; and he wasted no time getting himself mixed up with a gal-pal fatale — the brilliant, deranged Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson).
By the end of the first season, he was stuck between Alice and his colleagues, his wife's blood literally in his hands at one point, asking himself exasperatedly, "Now what?" That first season saw the show get hit with mixed reviews and declining ratings, even as Elba garnered a Golden Globe nomination and an NAACP Image Award. Fans were left hoping for at least a TV movie to answer Luther's last question.
Luckily for them, Elba and show runner Neil Cross would get four more episodes. Sort of. This season's four episodes were reportedly supposed to be a pair of two-hour specials. And in what could be an effort to accommodate new viewers — drawn in by Elba's rising profile in Hollywood — the second season opens a year after the first-season finale. Luther is alive and back on the beat, now serving as an investigator in an L&O-ishly named "Serious and Serial Unit," led by an old adversary, complaints officer Schenk (Dermot Crowley), who reveals that he "fought long and hard, and fought dirty" to keep Luther on the job.
We also learn that Luther is free because Alice has admitted to taking (uh, make that shooting) the bullet for him. What Luther is not, of course, is well. Besides living in relative squalor, he's discovered a rather disturbing morning ritual. Seemingly his only reason to get up every day is to salvage the few connections he has left: to stalwart partner Ripley (Warren Brown), who lost his job in the midst of protecting Luther; and to Mark (Paul McGann), the man his wife chose over him, even if calling them close "is probably pushing it."
The expanded story arcs give the antagonists more opportunities to show off their ghoulish side. The opening baddie, a failed artist, dons a Punch mask to fight what he calls the "cretinization" of the world by killing innocent women. Luther also runs into off-hours complications, when the widow of a former collar harasses him into trying to steer her daughter out of a life as a "sex worker."
There's a moment where Luther realizes he's getting himself in too deep but knows he can't look away. Meanwhile, another team member threatens to undermine his leadership, if for no other reason than Luther tends to burn people who get close to him.
After faltering early on, Luther appears to be on more secure footing. The show's ratings improved in England this year, prompting the BBC to order a third season, and Elba has talked about taking him to the big screen. If the character's past is prologue, then Luther probably won't get a graceful ride into the sunset — but at least it'll be entertaining.
Arturo R. García is the managing editor of Racialicious.