For members of the Idris Elba fan club, “Luther” will qualify as must-see TV, but there’s more to recommend this psychologically twisted BBC copshow than just the former “The Wire” star. Created by Neil Cross (“MI-5”), the six-part series takes what sounds like a tired premise — brilliant but emotionally troubled cop hunting the worst of criminals — and reinvigorates it, incorporating an unpredictable game of cat-and-mouse between Luther and one of his quarries. Despite sagging a bit in the midsection, “Luther” is well worth the investment.
Elba’s John Luther is introduced chasing down a suspect, who winds up in a coma. Months later he’s reinstated to the force following an investigation into what transpired, but the time away has taken its toll: His wife Zoe (“Rome’s” Indira Varma) has left him, causing Luther’s fragile psyche to begin fraying. Meanwhile, he encounters a woman (a terrific Ruth Wilson) whose parents have been murdered, the first of many grisly homicides that will cross the investigator’s path.
Luther’s mental state is of concern to his colleagues, but he’s such an astute sleuth that they nevertheless rely on him, especially a younger cop (Warren Brown) slightly in awe of his instincts. Yet Luther’s complicated relationship with one psychopath threads through the six hours, and the drama takes several unexpected turns — one of the luxuries of the British approach, which allows a show to take bold leaps over the course of a finite six-part run, more akin to a miniseries than to American dramas.
Elba, meanwhile, settles into this fidgety character — reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s disturbed cop in “Tightrope,” but with no shortage of predecessors — and makes it his own. There’s a genuine tension surrounding him — you’re not sure what he might do to his wife’s new boyfriend (Paul McGann) — as well as a Hannibal Lecter-like quality to his coy exchanges with an implacable killer.
There’s also a procedural element in the middle hours, with Luther focusing on individual cases in each installment, that doesn’t hold up quite as well. Even those installments, however, have their chilling moments, before the final two episodes take off and regain the premiere’s momentum.
The British certainly have a way with gruesome crime (“Messiah” remains a personal favorite) and unorthodox heroes. By those measures, there haven’t been many recent offerings in this genre on either side of the pond superior to “Luther.” Or, to borrow a favorite palindrome, less able was I ere I saw Elba.