Luther: The renegade cop returns in search of a clown-faced killer

Review: Idris Elba’s brooding bobbie is back with gross-out horror and comic-book peril

Idris Elba returns as the brooding, renegade cop John Luther

Idris Elba returns as the brooding, renegade cop John Luther

 

“Is this normal?” asks a doe-eyed new recruit to the “Serious and Serial” crimes unit of the Metropolitan Police. In most circumstances, this would be a strange question to ask while standing over a ghoulishly mutilated body in a playground sand pit. In the new season of Luther (BBC One, Tuesday, 9pm), however, the question is allowed to hover unanswered, because, well actually, yeah, come to think of it, by Luther’s standards this is rather run of the mill.

In Idris Elba’s brooding performance as DCI John Luther, to whom he bestows a bearish walk and the scowl of a man dealing with a perpetual toothache, we have a fabulous cliché: the renegade cop who goes by his gut and stews in the darkness of an unrelenting, miserable world. Only a twisted but brilliant psychopath (with whom Luther sometimes co-ordinates), or a consortium of misunderstood teenaged boys could really understand his tortured soul.

If Luther has seen it all at this stage, his creator Neil Cross may recognise similar problems in the viewer. The veteran detective show audience asks constantly for surprise and unfathomed darkness to satisfy a jaded palate. In truth, though, they actually crave the reassuring pleasures of more of the same. In Luther, we have both.

Within the first minutes Luther is abducted, beaten and almost murdered by some big-time crooks, an inconvenience he shrugs off easily and with no hard feelings. They are colleagues after all.

With the B-plot neatly established, the A-plot is allowed to gather in leering, cackling, uncanny derangement. A serial killer is on the loose, a guy with a penchant for perforating, whose best method of avoiding public attention is to wear a hoodie emblazoned with LEDs. In CCTV footage this renders him as a big shiny void. That, I suspect, may also be his character note. Here we have every cartoon trope of evil: a slow-stalking killer in a creepy clown mask, then a laughing maniac sitting naked in the home of his psychiatrist. If there’s one thing murderous psychopaths do well, it’s overkill.

His shrink, Dr Lake (Hermione Norris), ripples with weirdness while reporting her patient to the police, which is to say, directly to Luther. “He’s dealing with any number of intersecting paraphilias,” she says in suspiciously clipped tones. Huh, say the cops? He’s totally freaky deaky, she clarifies.

I would take all of this more seriously if the show’s twin muses didn’t appear to be Silence of the Lambs and Lethal Weapon. Luther can tell there’s a weird relationship between the shrink and the freaky-deaky psycho, because, like all police officers in the Serious and Serial unit, he is led by his gut. “Something’s not right,” someone will invariably say in Luther. Yet they will readily accept a pulpy scenario in which a criminal informant is whisked away to a warehouse, fitted with an explosive collar, and accompanied by a countdown clock. Is this normal?

That combination of gross-out horror and comic-book peril just about holds together against the show’s commendable pace (the gut-work helps) and its unswerving self-seriousness. One stab of humour, and the whole thing would deflate like a whizzing balloon. In the yawning moments of a new year, though, you can understand the appeal of a show that is equal parts grit and syrup, spook stories and implausible twists. We’re dealing with any number of intersecting paraphilias, here. My gut says Luther will get to the bottom of them.

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