There’s a lot of nighttime in BBC America’s “Luther,” the intense British crime series that returns for a third season on Tuesday night at 10. The London sky is endlessly inky and grim, charged with a tinge of pale orange from the streetlights. The entire city looks as if it’s lurking underground, not just the graffiti-tagged brick walls and wet cobblestone roads, but the skyscrapers glowing with fluorescent lights. It’s Detective John Luther’s stamping ground, and it all has a claustrophobic cast to it.
So it makes sense that Neil Cross, the extraordinary writer and creator of this series, has named our troubled hero’s new love interest Mary Day. Played by Sienna Guillory with blond hair and a sweet smile, Mary is the only bright and light presence in John Luther’s life. She promises a romance free of all the brutal criminals and office politics that plague him. They even have a classic “meet cute” moment over a car accident. She is the dream of life for a workaholic detective whose job is all about death. Can they possibly make it work?
That’s only one of the many questions that plays out in the new season, whose four hourlong episodes air across this week. Luther, played again with rich complexity and passion by Idris Elba, is seeking a serial killer whose perversion involves dressing up his female victims in 1980s styles — think Siouxsie and the Banshees. But he can’t go full-on Luther on the case, because he’s under investigation for his methods, which, as viewers of previous seasons know, are not by the book. Fellow cops Erin Gray (Nikki Amuka-Bird) and the hard-drinking George Stark (David O’Hara) are leading a charge against him, to end his career of taking the law into his own hands. Now his hands are tied — or are they?
The interesting thing about “Luther” is that, on the page, the story lines are constructed from very familiar crime-series tropes. The twisted killers with wall shrines, the too-eager internal affairs investigators, the cop who thinks he’s above the law — we’ve seen them a thousand times on the thousands of crime series plastered across our thousands of channels. And yet on “Luther,” they work like gangbusters.
For one thing, Elba is riveting in this role, as a guy with a very personal need to protect people. He shows us how Luther’s good intentions cause him deep pain, a pain that Cross milks by constructing crime plots that dovetail with Luther’s vulnerabilities. Elba makes Luther’s haunted, lonely soul into something faceted and more sympathetic than most of TV’s broody detectives.
And Cross and his director, Sam Miller, use a number of horror movie conventions to lift the murder cases to the next level. You can’t watch “Luther” without getting creeped out and jumpy a few times. We see the killers sneak up on their victims — or, in the case of this season’s first killer, crawl out from under the victims’ beds — and the tension becomes unbearable. This is a genuinely scary show, as the camera oh-so-slowly moves up a stairway toward a man who is hiding . . . in . . . the . . . closet. And then there are all those nightscapes.
I still think season one of “Luther” was the best, partly because it was six episodes long and partly because it prominently featured Ruth Wilson as the fantastically devious killer Alice Morgan, the one person able to match wits with Luther. This season is very good, but it’s only four episodes, and they’ve been tragically whittled down by BBC America to make room for commercials. The result is choppy, with a few critical connections missing in the investigation of Luther and in the progress of Luther’s relationship with Mary.
And Alice is . . . wait, I won’t spoil anything about Alice. She returned briefly in season 2, and perhaps she will be back again, perhaps not. You’ll need to watch in order to find out.