Fans of "Luther" like to shake in their booties just a little bit. The British detective series starring Idris Elba can be terrifying, as Elba's DCI Luther chases down some of London's most demonic, anarchic, and psychotic killers. The BBC America show, which returns for a movie event on Thursday at 9 p.m., invests the detective-drama genre with horror twists that are as grotesque and haunting as they are psychologically warped. Few other shows could make the cliché of a masked killer hiding under a woman's bed thoroughly spooky, as "Luther" did in series 3.
I was shaking in my booties as always as the "Luther" movie unfolded, but this time out of fear that one of my favorite series had lost its soul, not to mention its brain. With each passing scene, I could see creator Neil Cross straining harder and harder to revive the "Luther" magic, working to put the laconic, brooding detective through yet another grisly nightmare – a nightmare to top all previous nightmares, this time with a cannibal killer. Alas, by the end, I was wrung out from disappointment, from the awareness that Cross's script was woefully underdeveloped, more like a double episode of a "Criminal Minds"-like procedural than part of an outstanding franchise.
The "Luther" magic has a lot to do with Elba, of course, and he is perfectly fine this time around as the ever-rumpled sleuth for whom police rules are simply a suggestion. Elba has always kept Luther mysterious, to some extent; we rarely see much clear evidence of his emotions, nor are we privy to many of his deductive processes regarding cases. He's a murky fellow. But Elba has also consistently shown us deeper truths about Luther — that he is tormented by his mistakes, that he feels like an alien after all the evil he has witnessed, that despite the nihilistic world he has seen, he still cares about humanity. His London is like him – washed in nighttime and filled with hollow, run-down spaces.
It's not surprising that the proposed American remake of "Luther" has gone from bad idea to a delayed bad idea, since Fox is having trouble finding an actor who can fill Elba's shoes.
But Cross doesn't give Luther a lot to work with this time around, and it's a testament to Elba's power as a performer that he makes it through the mediocrity untarnished. On a leave of absence and living in a cottage on a cliff by the ocean – HE NEEDS TO LIVE ON THE EDGE, in case you don't get it – Luther gets lured back onto the force with news about his soul mate, the murderer Alice Morgan (played by Ruth Wilson, who isn't in the movie). Then, once he's back in the game, he gets involved in the cannibal case, chasing the bad guy from urban cave to urban cave, at one point crawling through a claustrophobic metal air duct after his prey. And on top of those two worries, he's also dodging a guy played with a wry streak by Patrick Malahide, who is trying to have him killed.
Nothing very chilling or suspenseful evolves from these story lines, not even when we learn the cannibal doesn't only eat hearts – he'll eat brains and tongues, if he so chooses. As the snacked-upon bodies pile up, the tension level drops. Luther spends time mentoring his new partner, played by Rose Leslie, from "Game of Thrones" and "Downton Abbey," but her character arc is painfully routine. He also deals with characters from previous installments of the show, a touch that would be clever if it weren't a little confusing.
The Brits are pioneers in the less-is-more approach to TV. Before we were fans of limited series and 10-episode cable seasons, they were pros at leaving audiences wanting more. But "Luther," whose first season remains its best, is going on too long. Time to let the weary detective return to his cottage and ponder the waves.
Starring: Idris Elba, Rose Leslie, Darren Boyd, Dermot Crowley.
On BBC America,
Thursday, 9-11:45 p.m.