The Curse of Realism
Why TV cop shows aren't meant to tell it like it is
UK viewers may in recent weeks have caught the new BBC police drama Luther, starring Idris Elba (the magnetic Stringer Bell in The Wire). It's fair to say Luther has garnered mixed reviews. Its critics say it's formulaic, overacted, overheated, cliche-ridden, with dialogue verging on the self-parodic. Its fans, by contrast, say it's formulaic, overacted, overheated, cliche-ridden, with dialogue verging on the self-parodic. That's the odd thing about Luther: everyone sees the same qualities in the programme, but what enrages some viewers enraptures others.
I confess to liking Luther a lot: it's one of the few programmes that I make a point of watching. I thought the first episode was dire, and it wasn't until the second that I understood what it was trying to achieve. The overripeness is at the core of the delight. Elba may not actually chew the scenery, but on more than one occasion he demolishes it; he rants his lines, swaggers across the sets as he plays the stereotypical cop with issues for all it's worth. Elba's performance isn't because he can't act: if you've seen The Wire, you'll remember how extraordinarily understated his Baltimore drug-lord is. The glory of Luther is that it doesn't pretend for a minute to be realistic; instead, it's half opera, half graphic novel, but with high production values and a classy cast.
Criticism seems to come largely from those who view 'realism' as a merit in itself, rather than artistic choice. All cop shows--all TV shows--are by their nature artificial. They are a representation of life, not life itself. On TV, cases are solved, justice (whether actual or poetic) is dispensed, and no-one ever has any paperwork. The criminal justice system does not deliver such unequivocal outcomes.
Luther has recognised and embraced this. It manages at once to parody the formula cop show and itself. And while you're enjoying it being hip and self-referential, it sneakily makes you care about the characters: the wholly unexpected death of one of the major players in this week's penultimate episode was as shocking a TV moment as I can remember.
Luther reminds us of two things: true realism is neither achievable nor desirable in art; and you should only judge an artistic endeavour in terms of what the artist is trying to achieve, not what the recipient thinks it should be.
If anyone else has been watching Luther, tell me what you think - particularly if you hated it...