Crime procedurals on TV are a dime a dozen (though often much more profitable), but BBC America's Luther is one in a million. Making Criminal Minds look like a romp in Disneyland, this twisted walk on the dark side earned an Emmy nomination this year for its powerful star, Idris Elba (The Wire), for good reason. Few things are juicier than letting an actor wallow in the most damaged corners of the soul.
And right away, as Luther returns for a second season (10/9c) comprised of two two-part thrillers airing over four weeks, we can see that John Luther's notoriety as London's most volatile and unstable detective is intact. Still grieving the death of his ex-wife (at the hands of a former colleague), Luther returns to work for a new Serious and Serial Crimes Unit, and given the demons he confronts on a daily basis without and within, it's little wonder part of his morning regimen includes a lightning round of Russian roulette.
Who's the psycho here? Always a good question, because it's sometimes hard to know if Luther deserves a medal or a straitjacket. Upon reporting for duty, his new boss gives him marching orders: "No secrets, no agendas — and no Alice Morgan." And there's the rub for this season, rendering it a shade less memorable than the electrifying first. Alice (the riveting Ruth Wilson), the psycho/seductress soulmate Luther couldn't escape throughout the first season, plays a much more tangential role this time around. When they're on screen together, it's electrifying. But it's way too fleeting.
Which doesn't diminish the grim power of this series, which introduces us almost immediately to a masked fiend terrorizing London's streets with the diabolical intent of becoming a modern urban legend. "I'm going to remind people what it's like to be really scared," he taunts the police. "Evil at its most pure," concludes Luther, who's pretty much the expert. Meanwhile, he has to convince his skeptical co-workers that his reckless methods won't tarnish their careers by association. Not such an easy task when his off-duty effort to save a young girl from the streets puts him under the thumb of ruthless thugs, a subplot that goes way over the top even by Luther's standards.
"Do I look like I'm joking?" Luther bellows in a later episode, as he douses himself with gasoline to throw another madman off guard. Seriously, everyone, Luther is no joke.
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The New Season: On the other hand, if jokes are your thing, you might give ABC's promising new Suburgatory (8:30/7:30) a try. My Fall Preview take: "A garish, broadly amusing Stepford satire with echoes of Juno and MTV's Daria in its deadpan why-me snark, Suburgatory is the perfect bridge between ABC's peerless family sitcoms The Middle and Modern Family. Welcome to the nabe, Tessa." To elaborate: Tessa, played with world-weary attitude by breakout star Jane Levy — a kindred spirit to Awkward's Ashley Rickards — is a city girl dragged against her will to the burbs by her overprotective single dad (the appealingly unaffected Jeremy Sisto), who's instantly seen as fresh meat by the burb's voracious cougars. "What is it with these mothers?" cringes Tessa in horror at the white-picket-fence "Fellini movie" of a nightmare she finds herself in. And that's before the aggressively perky Dallas (Cheryl Hines) takes Tessa under her wing, taking one look at the girl's bra and declaring it "something a burn victim would wear." Her dad may think Tessa needs a woman's touch, but these women? You'd never accuse Suburgatory of subtlety, but it's a fun place to visit, even if you'd never want to live there. It's also a hoot.
A Second Look: One of last week's surprise breakthroughs, aided by a powerful back-to-back Modern Family lead-in, was ABC's Revenge (10/9c), which I initially dismissed as lukewarm, overwritten and contrived. Turns out simplicity of premise is its own reward — it's certainly holding up better than the CW's Ringer, which is treading water awfully slowly — and ABC deserves kudos for effectively marketing this one as a guilty pleasure. After watching tonight's second episode, I'm still not entirely convinced this will make my own list. It's awfully predictable, and the vengeful heroine, Emily Thorne-aka-Amanda (Emily VanCamp), makes her elaborate payback schemes look a little too easy, this time targeting a crooked hedge-fund operator. But the show is certainly more enjoyable when all of those breathless voice-overs (which polluted the pilot) are kept to a minimum. And thankfully, the cat-and-mouse game intensifies between Emily and her queen bee Hamptons neighbor Victoria Grayson (Madeleine Stowe), so when Emily declares, "I can't tell you how much I've enjoyed this" after a tense teatime tete-a-tete, you really believe her. I just wish I enjoyed it more.
On the other hand, I'm still left mostly cold by ABC's Happy Endings (9:31/8:31c), a surprise renewal that cost Cougar Town its Wednesday slot and co-star Damon Wayans, Jr. his role on Fox's New Girl (where his Coach character was much funnier and fresher). The largely chemistry-free ensemble of this under-inspired Friends wannabe has exactly two funny standouts, both luckily showcased in the season opener: Casey Wilson as the insecure Penny, who moves into her own condo (declaring it "the year of Penny," because these characters are always referring to themselves in self-aware sitcom-speak) and then frets that she's falling into a "sad spinster" trap; and Adam Pally as slovenly gay guy Max, who overreacts when he thinks his buddy Brad (Wayans) is shunning him because he's not "professional" enough. I've tried to give this one the benefit of the doubt, but when they take a swipe at The Good Wife (of all shows to act superior toward), that's crossing the line.
So what else is on? ... Former Gleek Chord Overstreet is back in school — but now he's a teacher. On ABC's The Middle (8/7c), he guests as Brick's new 4th grade teach, who decides to let the kid skip gym. ... Ted Danson continues to impress as the quirky new team leader on CSI (CBS, 10/9c), although Brass can't help wondering, "Those 'shrooms in your office aren't medicinal, are they?" Tonight's case is even more bizarre than usual, as three separate suspects confess to the grisly slaughter of an entire family. ... Reality interlopers pollute yet another geographic wonderland as MTV's The Real World: San Diego premieres (10/9c). ... In the world of non-fiction (as opposed to "reality") cable programming, several signature series return, including Discovery's Mythbusters (9/8c), where Jamie and Adam test whether motorcycles are more eco-friendly than cars; TLC's Extreme Couponing (10/9c), which spotlights a Pennsylvania woman who uses her couponing skills to provide a weekly meal for 200 church parishioners; and new to the genre, National Geographic Channel's Rocket City Rednecks (9/8c), in which aerospace wizards in Huntsville, Ala., apply their scientific expertise to down-home experiments like using moonshine to power a rocket.
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