Season Five of “Luther” & “Shetland”

Two eagerly anticipated fifth entries to two beloved shows. One borne of popularity after claiming season four was the show’s finale, and the other borne of a hypnotic central locale clung to by a fervent audience. Could either one possibly live up to the hope and expectation. Well, yes…one did! The other…not so much….

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“Luther” S5 (BBC America)
Created by Neil Cross

Luther2Okay…I suppose there comes a time when an audience’s clamor for another season outweighs a production team’s ability to deliver the goods (hmm…what other show comes to mind?). And let’s face it, this season, which everyone, including myself, was so excited about, is an absolute dud. From the first entrance of Idris Elba’s iconic Luther, it’s evident that the watchword of the season is “let’s get this over with”. Which isn’t to say that if you are a hardcore “Luther”-an you shouldn’t watch it. Plot wise, there are many important open items brought back around, tied up, and completed. But even then it’s with more of a shrug than a bang. And who doesn’t like watching Idris chew up some scenery as he tries to save the universe…or at least get the serial killer. In this area, it still delivers.

As for that serial killer…British detective shows, with some exceptions (see below) are falling in to a very bad trap of giving away who the killer is way too early. Yes, I know…the fun is in the finding not the detecting…but sometimes the detecting is more fun than the finding. In this instance, it could have really used some more of the former.  The entire plot of the mystery seems so simple and predictable. Again, very “let’s get it over with”. Not to mention that the killing of “helpless” women by a serial killer is getting REALLY old…and not a little bit out of touch with the changing world we live in, at this point.

As for the secondary, and infinitely more interesting, plot, there isn’t much I can say that won’t give away gobs of information. But I think it’s safe to say there is a welcome return of mob boss, George Cornelius, who remains one of the finer television characters invented. But even here, it’s a mess of a story. Had that been the main plot, and it would have been so much better had it been, then they could’ve taken the time to work the story, play with the characters, add some depth to the shock of unexpected situations. As it is, it feels utterly rushed, and gives us an end that is, as you would expect, utterly unsatisfying.

The acting is passable, if noncommittal. Elba needs a nap throughout – and plays every scene with a sense of sleep-deprived loopiness mixed with screaming. Long time Brit TV vet, Wunmi Mosaku is utterly wasted as Luther’s new partner, acting as nothing more than a mother-figure to get him to focus on his job since she appears to be the only detective on the actual job. Dermot Crowley returns with all his sideways glancing crankiness, but it’s an old act. From the police side, only the brilliant Michael Smiley’s Benny, shows up in both commitment and writing. He’s the main reason to watch the show, and always has been, for me.

luther-enzo-cilenti-hermione-norris-1546874917As for this season’s specifics, imagine my surprise and joy when Roz from “MI5” (Hermione Norris) showed up as a main player! In that show, she is everything: interesting, the smartest person in the room, caring and funny in a spy sort of way. Here she is, again, asked to turn emotions on a dime, but in the most ridiculous fashion. She is ludicrously unreal, and not even her immense talents can save the role. The same can be said for Enzo Clienti. Neither written nor developed strongly enough, Clienti has no chance of making his character into the monster necessary. And simply impersonating Andy Robertson from “Dirty Harry” won’t cut it in a British show that expects MANY more dimensions. No, without Patrick Malahide’s, Cornelius, the entire thing would be mostly unwatchable. It’s not that his character is any more well written, he just understands what is asked of him and NAILS it. Such a joy to watch an actor in control of his character’s emotions and reactions. Like I said earlier, there are more surprises in store than I wish to ruin. Just know that when I say Cornelius and Smiley are the best performers in the show, I mean that across the board.

On a side note…the vast majority of the show is shot in almost total darkness…so if you don’t have a good TV with the brightness bumped up…or down, depending on your TV brand, you’re going to wonder what the hell is going on quite a bit of the time.

Yeah, it’s a real swing and a miss. But word is there may be a movie. I don’t know. They had six hours to make this season work, not sure what they can do in a third of that time to make it better. We’ll see. But don’t disparage, there’s always this other detective show that gets it right EVERY season…of course, I’m speaking of the brilliant…

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“Shetland” S5 (BritBox in the U.S.)
Based on the novels of Ann Cleeves

shetland1If you aren’t watching “Shetland” than you are missing one the great mystery/detective shows of our time. Subtle, believable, acted with a real sense of humanity, and shot in maybe the most gorgeous locale on earth, there is nothing about this show I cannot recommend. And more importantly, each season’s plot deals with real issues…PTSD, the effects of sexual assault, immigration, the collapse of the family, industrial espionage and its effects on a community, and on and on. It is one of the few shows of its genre that stimulates the mind in ways other than “let’s find the bad guy”. Oh, and it’s REALLY good at that, too. Convincingly leading you one way over another until you come to the conclusion at the show’s end is the hallmark of a great mystery show (see “Endeavour” for the real mastery of this style), and Shetland always delivers on that. All while taking in to account how small and isolated a community the Shetland Islands are. as evidence, people we have known, but not seen for seasons, may come back in to play, just as small moments in an earlier season carry over and become part of the DNA strand in its recurring characters.

Now, let’s be clear…this is not “Luther”. Not in tone or in energy. You won’t see people running and screaming with guns drawn, and all that. That’s especially true of this latest season. This year the plot revolves around the effects of those desperate to leave a dangerous existence in their countries of origin. And while it may be a half step too far for the show to handle, the effort, nonetheless, comes across as genuine…especially as the detectives readily acknowledge how small a piece of a much larger dilemma they find themselves a part of. But at least it tries to tackle something big and grand, while never losing sight of its characters, their histories nor their environment. As a result, Shetland’s fifth is SO much more satisfying than this season of “Luther”.

But there are two reasons why you watch this show…and one of them requires as big a 4K TV as possible. It’s Shetland itself. There is not one show out there with a more beautiful backdrop. And smartly, the producers lean into that, so a majority of scenes take place out on the rolling hills, dizzying cliffs, and dark North Sea waters of the Scottish archipelago. And thanks to the photography of Cinders Forshaw, this season is every bit as visually brilliant as those which came before. I re-watch the show regularly just for the astonishing sites.

shetland2But it’s the recurring performances of Douglas Henshall and Alison O’Donnell that make the thing still must-watch television five seasons in. Henshall’s Jamie Perez (although you could just as easily call him Detective Shetland), is the perfect human representation of the quiet, laid back, and oft-mysterious Shetlands. While always on the side of right, there exists, just beneath the surface, outrage (at the horrid things people are capable of doing), anger (at losing the love of his life first via divorce, and soon thereafter followed by her death – all of which is knowledge which precedes the first episode of the of the first season, so I’m not giving anything away there), and frustration (from the loneliness that follows everyone in  such a remote place). It’s maybe the most restrained, but full, performance you will see on television right now. Right behind his masterful work is Alison O’Donnell’s brilliance. She has an ability to take a written line and make it seem effortlessly of her character…even in the most dramatic or horrifying of moments. I’m not sure why she hasn’t been acknowledged by the BAFTA’s (even if the show has), but as someone who watches an inordinate amount of British television, I’m shocked at the ommision. Other series regulars making the Shetland community feel like home series after series include the fantastic work Mark Bonnar and the earnest warmth of Erin Armstrong.

Actors specific to this season fair well. Titana Muthui, is very, very good as a very, very unlucky Nigerian teen. Veteran actor, Rakie Ayola isn’t as successful although it is mostly not her fault. The story asks more of her and her character’s emotional lack of restraint, than either the show or the setting can reasonably accept. Ryan Fletcher, Kirsty Stuart, and John Kazek all do an outstanding job as cogs in the plot. But the best addition is Angus Miller. Doing a not-quite-as-dashing bit of Hugh Grant clumsy charm, he is a welcome addition to O’Donnell’s often dour storyline.

But lest we forget, a show this sparse needs an aural backdrop beyond waves and seagulls. Luckily we have John Lunn’s amazing music. It’s as if he bottled up what it would feel like to meander along the hills of Unst and let it fall out of a piano and a guitar. If this music had come out twenty years ago we would call it New Age, but it is most definitively expertly composed film music. I defy you to listen to the soundtrack recording after watching even an episode and not reliving the emotions brought about by the people and the place. Luckily, and gratefully, it’s available via iTunes and Amazon Music. Oh, and not for nothing, Shetland’s theme song is one of the five or six best from British mystery television…right up there with “Foyle’s War”and “DCI Banks”.

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Luther Season 5 Trailer (has MASSIVE spoilers):

Shetland Season 5 Trailer:

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