'Breaking all the rules," intones the BBC announcer. "No-one can escape maverick detective John Luther!" I've often wondered how maverick detectives manage to make it up through the ranks of television police forces in the modern era. Were they mavericks at every step in their career? Did PC Luther, while out on the beat, pursue helmet-less cyclists with extreme prejudice, dangling them over motorway bridges before forcing court summonses into their tear-soaked jaws? Maybe he delivered severe punishment beatings to people who were a bit late paying their car insurance?
Who knows? He's certainly a maverick by the time we meet him. The first episode opens with a moody Luther (played by Idris Elba, aka Stringer Bell from The Wire) pursuing a paedophile into the rafters of an industrial space, only to allow him to plunge to his death. This is tick number one in the essential itinerary of the maverick television cop – "a dark side". Tick two follows, as Luther spends six months in a mental institution, separates from his wife, and is thus revealed to have "a complicated personal life". In UK drama the next step is usually to establish a mild quirk or eccentricity – a love of opera, a comedy foreign accent or an interesting moustache. Possibly because Elba is a large muscular gent who's spent a lot of time in America, Luther gets a more American trait – a bad temper.
In fact, Luther's temper is so bad I wonder why they called him Luther at all. I can't imagine his namesake, the philosophical founder of Protestantism, shouting at waiters at the Diet of Worms. (It was a restaurant, right?) But this is the type of thing Luther spends lots of his time doing in the first episode. I've had a problem with inaccurate proper nouns in television drama ever since I discovered Gregory House in the US telly drama House wasn't a property developer or, more accurately still, a building, but was in fact a medical doctor. He should really have been named Gregory Grumpydoctor, I argued. Similarly, Detective John Luther should really be called Detective John Tantrum. Because, although the writers also try and imbue their character with superhuman levels of intuition, Tantrum's main detection style seems to involve having a hissy fit. Over the course of the programme Tantrum punches a door into pieces (on discovering his wife has a new lover), flips over his office desk (I can't remember why, maybe there was a clue under it?) and throws his wife's boyfriend over the bonnet of a car. "Goddamnit, Tantrum, you need evidence!" says the chief of police half-heartedly (I'm paraphrasing.) "Raaaagh!" says Tantrum and kicks a hole in the wall. "Was there evidence in the wall, Tantrum?" asks his eager and easily-impressed partner, clearly unaware of the employment legislation that means he doesn't have to put up with such behaviour. "Raagh," nods Tantrum, carefully bagging the evidence and taking it down to forensics where he will, no doubt, punch the shit out of it.
The best thing about the programme is the establishment of a Moriarty to Tantrum's Hulk, in the shape of sexy, brainy, former child prodigy and genuinely eerie murderer Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). She probably killed her parents, but Tantrum simply can't pin it on her. Instead he sort of vows to become her nemesis and there's some obligatory sexual tension ("Kiss me... kill me... but do something!" purrs Morgan) before he goes off to have another showdown with Bride-of-Tantrum, who has ditched him (possibly because he keeps smashing the furniture) in order to shack up with Paul McGann (understandable). All in all, though, it's a bit dull. Unlike their lead character the writers of Luther/Tantrum do things very much by the book.
Superstar Ding Dong?! I said, as the credits rolled for the new TV3 quiz show hosted by the cockatoo-resembling, model-dating, VIP-frequenting Brian Ormond. "Surely it should be called Slightly Famous Ding Dong?" But nobody laughed, because I had missed the point. The words "Superstar Ding Dong" do not refer to the slightly-famous Ormond, but to an array of tribute singers who resemble real superstars like Madonna, George Michael, Lady Gaga and Bono. Well, they resemble them in the way the mutant clones in Alien 4 resembled Sigourney Weaver. However, unlike those clones, the singers do not plead for death (actually, I think maybe the Robbie Williams impersonator did), but emerge singing from behind a series of doors, after contestants correctly guess the title of the song played on their "doorbells".
And it wasn't bad. It's easy to forget the power of good old-fashioned quiz-show tension, and as harried stay-home-dad-in-need-of-a-free-holiday Chris ran around the set correctly identifying all the songs based on a few meagre chimes, I got caught up in it all. Chris was a very likeable fellow, so I was pleased when he won. It felt just. In the end, while Superstar Ding Dong was cheap and ludicrous and featured out-of-tune sing-a-longs, and probably doesn't really have the mileage for a whole series, it was, at least for one Sunday, fun.
TV3's other debut this week promised The Truth About Travellers but really delivered the "So what?" about "Meh". Despite being presented by Newstalk's Henry McKean, a nice chap who probably should be on television a lot more, The Truth About Travellers felt like it took longer to watch than to make. And despite assertions that it was going to be a unique exploration of Traveller culture, we got no history of that community, no explanation of their role in Irish society, and no sense of the realities of their day-to-day existences. The programme started with some "preconceptions" about bare-knuckle boxing and street feuds, plunged straight into interviews about Travellers' conservative sexual mores, before ultimately taking us to visit a wedding. This is, I suspect, a bit like someone doing a piece on the Irish by referencing Lucky Charms and The Gangs of New York before countering it with a St Patrick's Day parade.
Really good films of this ilk (RTé's recent Growing Up Gay, for example) involve the documentary makers spending months if not years with their subjects, ultimately whittling weeks' worth of footage down to a tight, well-selected hour. The first episode of The Truth About Travellers, all 49 minutes of it, felt like it featured the only footage they had. The interviewees engaged with Henry warily, as though he'd just arrived on the scene, and there were lots of directionless exchanges, which, while demonstrating Henry's charming ice-breaking skills, usually ended when the ice was still only slightly cracked.
We never properly got to know any of the subjects into whose lives we'd intimately intruded, so all we were left with was spectacle. The dresses were huge and the humvees were only massive, and despite protestations to the contrary, the way the footage was presented seemed to be inviting ridicule. All in all, we learned that some Travellers spend a fortune on lavish OTT weddings, a tradition which might seem daft, if not for the fact that settled people have traditionally spent hundreds of thousands on worthless, three-bedroom semis in the commuter belt. (Now that's crazy.)