Wednesday, November 02, 2011

With her eyes like a flame

Enough culture - it's TV time!

I've finished watching the two (and, so far, only) seasons of Luther, an amazing British crime import. First of all, I am now even more impressed with Idris Elba than before - he's now entered that rare cadre of actors whose work makes me want to see everything they're in. Between this and his work in The Wire, I've gotten a good feel for his range, which is quite good - each individual character is fully-realized and committed, so you don't get a huge range within Stringer Bell or within Luther, but the union of the two reveals his impressive acting chops.

I've commented on this before, but on a purely superficial level, there are significant overlaps between Luther and House. Both feature incredible performances from talented British actors; both play characters who work in high-stakes, life-or-death institutions; both are rogue agents who make choices that frequently risk the life and health of innocents, but whose superiors have no choice but to accommodate them due to their immense skill; both are fairly episodic shows but have longer serial plots that cover and span seasons; both open with incredible songs from Massive Attack that I'll never get tired of hearing.

That said, House is clearly an American show (if a more cynical one than we usually see), and Luther is clearly a British show. That means the seasons are quite short - six one-hour episodes for the first season; the second season was presented as four one-hour episodes, but it's really two two-hour movies. It has a way darker sensibility, too. The show is relentlessly violent and bloody, not to mention bloody-minded. The characters are all English, and in a few cases I found myself having trouble tracking their accents (Luther and the more cultured characters speak quite clearly, but many of the other detectives and suspects have a strong London accent that makes them hard to understand when they speak quickly).


The other great BBC detective show I've seen recently, Sherlock, has its own set of overlaps with this show, mainly in terms of plot. I'm not totally clear on the chronology of the two shows - when each started shooting, when it aired in the UK, when it aired here - but I'm guessing/hoping that they weren't aware of each other during their first seasons, because both of them rely on a twist about how nobody would ever suspect a London cabbie of being a murderer. They both use pretty much the same reasoning, too - it's someone who people would trust implicitly, even if they don't know them. In both shows, the actual cabbie turns out to be a thoroughly ordinary-looking person. In Sherlock, this elevates the chilling scariness of the whole sequence - he seems like a harmless man, even though he plays the role of evil incarnate. In Luther, he becomes an amazingly pathetic villain. He's a failure at life, and a failure as a killer, and his miserable little life is ended.

The first season seemed to draw from a highly varied and memorable list of villains: some were very high-class, like Alice and the guy who's a best-selling author and leader of a Satanic cult. Others, like the cabbie, were very low-class, memorable in their squalor. The second seasons' villains, though, were creepy because of just how ORDINARY they looked. I doubt anyone would look at those people twice if they passed them on the London streets. There's a huge gap between our image of these people and the atrocities they perform. To me, it felt like we weren't just watching some super-genius outsider criminal; we were watching the decay of English society itself, the birth of a culture whose very foundation could be twisted to evil.

Speaking of which... I found myself thinking a LOT about the differences between English and American culture presented in the show. At the start of the final episode in the second season, there's a long sequence where a policeman is chasing down a murderer who has struck in a public train terminal. The policeman keeps shouting, "Stop that man!", but even though they're running through a crowd, nobody stops, nobody wants to get involved. The citizenry seems cowed. I have a hard time imagining that happening in a major American city - we still have enough cowboy in our veins that SOMEONE would have intervened and helped out a policeman.

That was the most dramatic example in the series, but looking back over it, it seems to be in keeping with the show in general. There's a very clear demarcation between law and crime, and also a pronounced role for those who don't fit into either camp. I don't think we once see a citizen volunteering information that helps in an investigation. Obviously, I don't know enough about London culture to say whether that's realistic, or if it's a grim noir atmosphere contrived by this show for a strong effect.

One similarity I found was the protection of suspects' rights. I was a little surprised to see this; I don't watch a whole lot of British detective shows, but from the ones I have seen, I don't recall suspects being advised of their right to silence, etc. I know that this sort of thing isn't universal - in particular, in France police can arrest someone without a warrant, and have much more flexibility in how they conduct interrogations. The more I think about it, though, it makes sense that we'd have this similarity. The UK and America are both common law countries, after all, and the American judicial code is basically a direct descendent of the Magna Carta. Details will always vary, but the idea of the law itself as a supreme institution that's above everyone, even the most powerful individuals, binds our countries together, and informs the way we pursue justice.

Topic hop: Alice was arguably the best part of the show, maybe even more so than Luther himself. She's absolutely captivating every second she's on screen; her combination of beauty and danger takes everyone's breath away, even someone as thoroughly capable as Luther. I was really hoping that they would join forces more directly in the second season. One of the advantages of the British shorter-form television season is that they can be more experimental; it's more like a mini-series than a series, so they can do dangerous things and take a program in an unexpected direction, and not need to worry so much about writing themselves into a corner. (You would think that an American show with 23 episodes would cover more plot ground than a British show with 6 episodes, but if the American show shakes things up halfway through the season, they need to fill another 11 episodes that all have to acknowledge that change, while the British show can just treat it naturally and then end things.) All that to say, I think they could have gotten away with Luther actually leaving the police force... probably not leaving London, but perhaps becoming a private detective (do they have those in England? Would he be the world's second consulting detective?), or even the shadowy underworld figure that the various criminals want him to become. As it was, I was very sad that Alice didn't make an appearance at all in the last two episodes, which were otherwise quite good.

I guess that Mark dropped out, too. Ah, Mark. I really liked the way they handled him in the first part of the second season. I was never quite sure of what to think of him in the first season - we're supposed to hate him, since he stole Luther's wife away from him, but he's such a thoroughly decent person and such a good match for Zoe... but he's also overly passive and a bit too calm... well, we see him again once his world has been broken, and my heart breaks for him. It makes no sense that he and Luther would be friends now, and yet it also makes perfect sense - they're united in their love, not for one another, but for someone who's forever gone.


Quick thoughts on a few other shows. I'm actually pretty happy with The Walking Dead so far. None of the episodes has been as good as Season One's premiere, but I feel like the average quality so far has been better than the average quality last season. Most of the annoying characters have been eaten off, and we're getting a good chunk of zombie mayhem each episode, along with some good ongoing development.


In particular, the major non-zombie plot so far has revolved around Carl's accident. I'm struck by how much of the zombie atmosphere and design has infected these scenes, even in the absence of any infection. Carl's deathly white skin pallor... his sudden shifts between seeming death and animation... his uncontrollable jerking movements in bed... all very creepy, and it thematically links his private ordeal to the global crisis, even when there's no direct tie between the two. There's also, of course, a big obsession with blood. That might be a bit more appropriate in a vampire drama than a zombie drama, but it still fits. Carl has an insatiable desire for fresh blood to remain among the living, while the many zombies we see have an insatiable desire for fresh blood to remain among the walking dead.

I have trouble remembering everyone's names, so I use nicknames for everyone. Rick is Good Cop, Shane is Bad Cop. Boy, Shane has been on a tear lately - that reveal at the end of the third episode was just chilling. Just when I think I can like him again, he has to destroy it all. Rick seems to be pure goodness, and it's easy to root for him, but man, his opening monologue at the start of this season was probably the most annoying thing the show has ever done. I like all the other male characters, but other than Lori, all the women are seriously aggravating me. Which is, of course, well in keeping with zombie fiction practice: we're supposed to have at least some idiotic characters who make bad decisions that cause us to slap our heads and yell at the screen. Well. Part of me is hoping that Andrea and Carol get eaten, and the women from the farmhouse take their place. I'm a bad person.


Dexter is... fine. I'm surprised at just how much I'm enjoying Mos Def's Brother Sam character, who seems like he should be insufferable (given the really tone-deaf treatment of religion in the first episode), but has taken off. We'll see if he sticks around for the season. Edward James Olmos seems to be wasted as half of the villain team. I'm liking the new cop character, and am curious if he'll become a less-caffeinated version of Doakes in a season. Last week's episode didn't have any LaGuerta at all, which means it's automatically one of my favorite episodes. So far the show seems to be handling Deb's promotion well, using it to expand her character in believable ways. We'll see where the show goes. There's definitely a lot of amazing potential in using Revelation as a kill gimmick, and so far the show hasn't shied away from maximizing it.

No comments:

Post a Comment