Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BBC's Luther: A Delightful Throwback to Pulp Noir

The pilot of the BBC's new cop drama Luther begins with a scene that leaves the audience a little fuzzy on the tone of the series.  As the show's hero stands on the edge of a precipice from which a child murderer hangs from his finger tips, tight close up jump cuts show us DCI Luther getting more and more frantic, worked up.  A bit schmaltzy, it brought to mind a similarly cheesy moment in the 1986 film Manhunter, where William Petersen's character hits his hand against a tree while realizing how nasty the killer was.

Is this the kind of heavy handed treatment the viewer is in for?

Well, yes.  And no.

It takes a while to orient to Luther, because it doesn't fit into the boxes one would expect it to.  Today's cop shows rest pretty much in one of two polarities.  On one side, there's the world of the typical cop procedural like Law and Order and CSI, where characterization is paper thin following a whodunnit trail.  On the other end of the spectrum, there's shows like The Wire and The Killing, which painstakingly strive for naturalism and realism.

Both poles, however, try to serve as representations of truth.  Stories seek to encompass not just the possible, but also the plausible.

But this forgets an entire bygone style of story telling - the pulp detective, who could find himself up against the occult just as easily as a mugger.  Luther is a delightful throwback to this kind of pulp noir.  It doesn't live on the same continent as CSI or The Wire, but a forgotten land where vigilantes, psychopaths, and occultic killers are just as likely to be hunted by a hardboiled detective.  The crimes aren't ripped from the headlines, but rather from the deepest recesses of imagination.

Sure, the show flirts with serious themes - are all murders equal?  What is the nature of evil?  Is it okay to murder your parents if you can touch your nose with your upper lip?  But it does so without pretension.  The show takes itself just as seriously as it needs to, with healthy dollops of dry wit and humor served up by the ever capable Idris Elba.

So catch up on the first season of this exciting new season, and don't try to put it in modern boxes.  Sit back, relax, and enjoy the storytelling of yesteryear, meted out with contemporary sensibilities.

1 comment:

  1. "Is it okay to murder your parents if you can touch your nose with your upper lip?"
    I'm dying over here. Just dying. Of laughter.

    I'm a huge Luther fan. I wish I could unwatch S1E3, but overall, it's a unique cop show. Tying it to the Pulp tradition is a connection I hadn't made and makes a lot of sense.