At its core, the Idris Elba-starring BBC series Luther is a police procedural. John Luther (Idris Elba) is a detective who takes his cases seriously, lives on the edge of ethics, and often finds his professional life butting into his private world, but the same could be said of any number of TV cops, particularly Christopher Meloni’s Elliot Stabler on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit or Michael Chiklis’ Vic Mackey from The Shield. But unlike a lot of other television anti-heroes, John Luther seems to relish in the idea of living outside the law, and the first three seasons of Luther found him following that idea into psychological places that were remarkably dark. Add in some intriguing villains and you get one of the better crime dramas of the past few years.
The new Luther special opens with the title character living in seclusion, holed up in a drafty house perched on a cliff by the sea. He’s taking a breather from police work following the disappearance of confidante (and murderer) Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson), who has been keeping contact with Luther while she secretly moves around Europe on a tour of chaos. She gets some bad news from colleagues Theo Bloom (Darren Boyd) and Emma Lane (Game of Thrones’ Rose Leslie): Alice has been found dead, and they are searching for who might be responsible. That revelation, coupled with the rise of a new serial killer in London, compels Luther to don his signature coat and get back to the business of chasing psychopaths.
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Luther: Outlaw has all the hallmarks that made the series stand out in the first place. It presents London as a city of perpetual shadow, forever washed-out and exhausted, just like our protagonist. All the performers are stellar — Elba and Leslie have the kind of chemistry that should prove fruitful down the line, and both Patrick Malahide (as a cantankerous hitman) and Laura Haddock (as a would-be psychic who inserts herself into the investigation) deliver memorable turns. But the weakness is in the narrative — without spoiling anything, Luther: Outlaw clearly wants to be a hard reset for the direction of the show, but it can’t seem to shake the clichés of its main story, which follows a serial killer whose tics are lifted directly from various incarnations of Hannibal Lecter, with a bit of Kevin Spacey’s Se7en killer for additional seasoning. There’s also probably one narrative thread too many, though the cat-and-mouse game between Luther and the gentlemanly sinister George Cornelius (Malahide) is fantastic. Outlaw‘s quality mostly rests with its potential: With so many new faces and ideas being tossed around, it feels like there’s a lot of greatness on the TV horizon. Fingers crossed it pays off in the end, but until then, Luther: Outlaw has to live with being good enough. B–