Sometimes you have to make connections between works of art. And sometimes the connections will be painfully obvious to you, and instructive. This week I watched the first episodes of BBC1’s new cop drama Luther, starring Idris Elba, and FX’s new cop drama Justified, starring Timothy Olyphant.
Here’s the thing: I love crime fiction and police procedurals, and I will watch or read nearly anything featuring cops or crooks simply to see how different approaches to similar set-ups yield different results. There are superficial similarities between Justified and Luther: both series deal with tough, maverick lawmen. (Elba is famous for his portrayal of cool, ruthless drug dealer Stringer Bell on official Best TV Show Ever™ The Wire. Olyphant’s most famous role is the constantly enraged sheriff Seth Bullock on HBO’s masterful Western series Deadwood.) Both begin with their protagonists returning to work in the aftermath of a controversial case. Both characters are estranged from their wives, and have bosses who put up with their shenanigans because they get results, you stupid chief! But there is a world of difference in execution of the concept.
It was lucky for me that I watched the first episodes of Luther and Justified almost back-to-back. Compared to each other, they are the How-To and How-Not-To of procedural writing.
In fact, you could play back both episodes simultaneously and see the incredible difference in plot covered, and more importantly, how it keeps the audience interested. Both episodes have the job of setting up the series, and Justified establishes that within the first five or so minutes, as well as giving us a neat, tense opening, and perfectly sketching out Olyphant’s US Marshal Raylen Givens. We see him travel back to his home town, are filled in on the supporting cast and the central conflict of the show, all in a way that feels organic and subtle.
Luther, on the other hand, commits the cardinal sin of any genre TV show – it’s a crashing bore. Scenes crawl by lazily, filled with rambling self-indulgent dialogue that either reiterates stuff we already know, or goes on rhetorical flights of fancy where cop and suspect swap juvenile pseudo-philosophy. This kind of writing is meant to seem high-flown and intellectual, but more often than not, to use a literary term, it’s just shit.
Justified’s characters shoot the breeze like normal people, but inside the chitchat is buried tons of information about character and backstory. (I’d put this down to the influence of Elmore Leonard, on whose novels the series is based – he’s a master at dialogue.) A good writer can make the mundane seem important. A bad writer thinks all good writing should sound important, and creates dialogue that aims for clever and ends up at stupid.
And Justified surges ahead on acting as well, giving Olyphant’s easy-going yet steely performance room to breathe. His face-offs with Walton Goggins’ childhood friend turned neo-Nazi mix menace and human moments, as two great actors do their thing with a minimum of interference or histrionics. Luther does no such thing, relying on crashingly unsubtle cues for the actors to go with their dialogue. The low point comes when Luther destroys a clearly-made-of-balsa-wood door in a disastrously inept, clichéd moment of ActingRage™. It made me laugh out loud the first I saw it – the series was dead in the water from that moment on. (I’m always willing to give Elba the benefit of the doubt – he’s undoubtedly a talented actor, but I’m not going to begrudge his taking material that is clearly beneath him in order to build his profiles).
Simply put, there is a Right Way and a Wrong Way to do a genre show made from stock elements. I haven’t seen a British drama series in years that can stack up with the best of American TV, but judging by this even a decent procedural is beyond our capabilities.