The line between genius and insanity can be treacherously thin, which makes for electrifying viewing when our TV heroes turn out to be basket cases.
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A week from Sunday, PBS' Masterpiece Mystery! will introduce us to Steven Moffat's delightful modern-day Sherlock (wittily played by Benedict Cumberbatch), a contemporary spin on the Arthur Conan Doyle classic. His police colleagues resentfully describe him as a psychopath, to which Holmes bristles: "I'm a high-functioning sociopath. Do your research!"
This Sunday, an even more twisted London sleuth makes an electrifying entrance in BBC America's six-part crime thriller Luther, starring The Wire's dynamic Idris Elba as a volatile detective whose unhinged antics make it sometimes hard to distinguish just who's crazy in Neil Cross' expert storytelling. This bold British import is among the best TV I've seen in a mediocre (on network TV, anyway) fall season. Fast-paced, constantly surprising and darkly entertaining, Luther is about as far as you can get from a cookie-cutter procedural.
"You do know the man is nitroglycerin," warns a colleague about John Luther. Explosive is just about right, as our first glimpse of Luther shows him panting in animal fury as he pursues a very bad man. Something very bad naturally ensues, and we next pick up the story of this damaged but gifted detective seven months later, his career and marriage in shambles.
Back on the job, the emotionally fragile but brutish Luther is plunged into a weird murder case where he encounters "malignant narcissist" and possible killer Alice Morgan (an eerily intense Ruth Wilson), who delights in toying with Luther's already troubled mind. An astrophysicist, Alice seductively invokes a black hole as a metaphor of "evil at its most pure, something that drags you in, crushes you, makes you nothing." Luther is Prime Suspect on crack.
As the series progresses, with each new case more grisly and unnerving than the next, almost like psychological horror movies, Luther is repeatedly drawn back to the lethal, cunning Alice. Is she trying to help or destroy him? Who's the cat and who's the mouse here? That's the sort of question you'd need a Sherlock to answer.
"You're the opposite of boring," Luther's estranged and often alarmed wife (Indira Varma) tells him. The same can be said for Luther, which never lets up. Luther doesn't just break rules, he obliterates them. The stories get increasingly disturbing until in the final two chapters, the turmoil goes into overdrive, threatening Luther's mental health, reputation and life.
An overwhelmed Internal Affairs officer is heard muttering, "I have no desire to see what happens next." He's the only one. A nail-biter to the end, Luther is highly recommended to anyone with an appetite for the darker side of British mystery. (More good news: A second season, consisting of two two-hour movies, has been commissioned for 2011.)
Luther premieres Sunday at 10/9c on BBC America.
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