Compulsively Bad Taste

Gould: Look, we all go way back, and I owe you from the thing with the guy in the place, and I’ll never forget it.

Clooney: That was our pleasure. 

Pitt: I’d never been to Belize.

This is dialogue from my favorite scene in the film Oceans Eleven, one of the movies that I’ll stop and watch in it’s entirety if I just happen across it when channel surfing, a film I’ve seen at least a dozen times.

Gould’s line is so absurdly funny and Clooney and Pitt respond in lines that mean absolutely nothing to the audience. We really have no idea what they are talking about. The capper is Gould’s comment that “I’ll never forget it” even though he cannot remember any of the details of this previous encounter. I wish I could write like that.

The thing is, I can watch films like this over and over again and not feel like I’m “wasting time” or that I should be doing something more significant. Because essentially, who is to say what actually has meaning?

Even with this proclivity, I stay active. I’m not a couch potato. I’m just entranced by certain actors, certain films, even critical moments in some films.

I can put on the film Once just to watch the first 12 minutes up to the point when Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova make their way to a quiet music store and perform the lovely duet of “Falling Slowly” which earned the pair an Academy Award. On some days, I’ll put in my disc of that film, just to see that scene—once or twice or three times. Then I’ll pull out my guitar and try to master the intro to that wonderful song.

And then there is Tom Cruise. That’s right—I’ll admit it. I’m a fan. I don’t care if he’s a freak personally; he has made a bunch of films that I like. Top Gun has a place in my heart that I’ll talk about later, but lately I find I can’t resist watching Jack Reacher or the futuristic Edge of Tomorrow and reveling in the writing and execution of the films. I hope the guy never ages—and it makes me happy to know that at 5’8”, I’m apparently taller than he is according to my sources at Universal Studios.

And then there is Denzel. He’s done important films like The Hurricane and Training Day but seeing those once was enough. While I’m writing this I’m watching Man on Fire for probably the 20th time, and I just ordered my own copy of The Equalizer only because I recently subscribed to Amazon Prime and can get stuff shipped to me for free. Both are stories of both revenge and redemption, themes I find irresistible. And then there is the very underrated film, Déjà Vu, where Washington excels as both an action hero and romantic lead.

In a pinch, I can plug in any of the three Bourne movies with Matt Damon and escape happily into a world of action and intrigue.

Most of my day is filled with hiking, yoga, gardening, home maintenance, and marriage maintenance. However, I have no problem taking a break to watch something on TV—over and over again.

 

 

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“Clear Eyes, Full Heart, Can’t Lose”

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If those words don’t give you a chill or a jolt of adrenaline then somehow you missed out on the five seasons of the “teen drama”, Friday Night Lights, a television show that recreated the experience of living in the small, Texas town of Dillon, a town that lives and dies with the fortunes of its football team, the Dillon Panthers.

If you never watched the show, this piece may not make much sense, and I suggest you call in sick, stock up on supplies, and get ready to binge watch all five seasons immediately.

I was first offended a little when I noticed that Netflix had relegated FNL to the category of “teen drama.” I don’t watch teen dramas, I thought. Why do I like this show so much? Then it occurred to me that I had spent my entire life watching teen dramas as I stood in front of a high school classroom for 36 years. Secretly, as I watched them all unfold, I had a longing to go back and enjoy that teenaged life again.

So this weekend as I finished watching the entire series for the second time, I started to imagine who I’d want to be if I could somehow insert my teenaged self into this fictional narrative. It would be great to be Matt or Luke or Vince, all of whom reach stardom at some point. But no, these are all good boys. I’ve already done the good-boy thing. I would have only one choice, hands down—Tim Riggins.

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Me.

I like Tim because he keeps it simple. He wants to suit up every week, play hard, hit people, drink beer, and allow a seemingly endless string of pretty girls to pursue him. He’s a laconic, hunky, bad boy with a heart of gold. For all his lack of social graces, Tim is quietly one of the most compassionate characters on the show—you almost don’t notice this about him at first because he always seems to be apologizing for having done something wrong. But in the end, Tim just wants his girl, a patch of land, a beer, and a Texas sunset. Nothing wrong with that (except actually being in Texas).

My teenaged self would have to find a girl and FNL manages to parade an array of beautiful young women through the show without it ever looking like a van full of young Victoria Secret models has descended on tiny Dillon. So there are lots of choices here; it’s no simple Ginger/Maryanne dichotomy. Julie? Too sulky and whiney. Lyla? Too bipolar. Becky or Jess? Maybe when they grow up a little. No, my teenaged self would have been entirely and hopelessly in love with Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki).

 

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My girl.

Tyra grows from a fluffy beauty to a strong, thoughtful young woman as the show progresses. Don’t get me wrong, she also gets even more beautiful, but she veers away from spending her life working at Applebees to being a college girl with a strong sense of her future. I especially love her (and the writers) for including a sweet, but short-lived romance with likeable nerd Landry Clarke (Jesse Plemons), my actual alter-ego.

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Everyone’s favorite coach.

As a teenager in Dillon, I know I would need emotional support. I’d need strong guidance and a kind but firm presence in my life. For that I’d have to look to Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler). Coach Taylor is the master of the pep talk, both to his teams and to individuals. He is the tough but caring mentor for whom a kid would do anything to please. He’s the kind of man my imaginary teenaged self would like to grow up to be.

 

 

How “Field of Dreams” Made Me a Better Father

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Spoiler Alert! If you have not seen the film this piece abounds with spoilers. And what’s wrong with you that you haven’t seen this film yet?

It was supposed to be a movie about baseball. That’s all I really knew about it as I stood in line waiting for an afternoon showing back in 1989. It was the perfect combination of two of my most favorite things. The bucolic pace of baseball interrupted occasionally with bursts of action, and the cool, dark communal experience of watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon.

So, I was confused when the patrons of the earlier show began to stumble out into the bright light of the afternoon, and I could have sworn that I saw an older gentleman hurry away from the theater in tears.

“Hmmm,” I thought. “Weird.”

The matinee was a momentary escape for my wife and I from our two kids, who were 2 and 7 at the time—a typical afternoon respite from work, kids, responsibility, life.

As the film began, I probably should have paid more attention to the monologue delivered by the Kevin Costner character where Ray Kinsella (Costner) describes the tortured relationship with his father and his desire to not live the dreamless, workaday existence that he perceived was his father’s fate:

Dad was a Yankees fan then, so of course I rooted for Brooklyn. But in ’58, the Dodgers moved away, so we had to find other things to fight about. We did. And when it came time to go to college, I picked the farthest one from home I could find. This, of course, drove him right up the wall, which I suppose was the point. Officially, my major was English, but really it was the ’60s. I marched, I smoked some grass, I tried to like sitar music, and I met Annie. The only thing we had in common was that she came from Iowa, and I had once heard of Iowa.

 Hell, I loved baseball, had majored in English, showed up at some Vietnam War protests because we heard Joan Baez was going to be there (she was), and everyone tried to like sitar music because George Harrison liked it and everyone wanted to like whatever the Beatles liked. I could totally identify with this guy.

In that dark theater, I should have paid closer attention as Ray and the fictional author Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) begin their road trip and Kinsella tells Mann about the effect of one of his books on his relationship with his father:

“By the time I was ten, playing baseball got to be like eating vegetables or taking out the garbage. So when I was fourteen I started refusing. Can you believe that? An American boy refusing to play catch with his father.

Why fourteen?”

That’s when I read “The Boat Rocker,” by Terence Mann.

Oh, God.” (rolling his eyes)

Never played catch with him again.”

You see? That’s the kind of crap people are always trying to lay on me. It’s not my fault you wouldn’t play catch with your father!”

I was completely caught up in the mysticism of the movie and the story of how a dream, any dream, could find fulfillment. How the ball field in Iowa, carved out of his cornfield by Kinsella would provide redemption for Shoeless Joe Jackson and a chance for Moonlight Graham to finally get his first at bats in a big league game. The cornfield also provided the backdrop for Mann to deliver his now famous ode to baseball and its part of the fabric of America where he assures Kinsella that, “People, will come Ray. People will most definitely come.” I was eating up every fantastical theme it was throwing out about redemption, faith, and second chances as avidly as an outfielder diving for a line drive.

So, when Terence Mann drifted off into the cornfield and Shoeless Joe left Ray with one more cryptic message as he pointed to a lone player lingering behind and then left the field, I was completely blindsided. Never saw what the film was really about.

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Because down at the backstop, the player, a catcher, was still cleaning up his gear alone and unnoticed. The player was Ray’s father, a young man on this magical field, not worn down by life, dreaming of being a big-league ball player, a man with dreams—a man that Ray had never known.

In that moment, Ray and I realized that he had a second chance—a chance to introduce his wife and his father’s granddaughter, a chance to play that game of catch that he had rejected in his youth.

Ok, by now, I’m not crying, I’m weeping. I’ve been so taken by surprise that I’m stunned by the implications of this film and it’s ultimate message. Don’t tell anyone, but I cry at movies, especially ones about sports. I cried at the end of Mighty Ducks II. I cry during about every third episode of Friday Night Lights. Brian’s Song?—forget about it.

This film suddenly flooded me with memories of my dad and thoughts about the father I was trying to become. I had a vivid memory of asking my dad to come and play catch with me. After one or two tosses, I discovered that he had no natural athleticism or feel for the game. He threw so awkwardly that I quickly made up an excuse to cut the session short. As wonderful as he was in so many ways, he did not have this one skill. It was probably the only time that in my youthful ignorance, I felt disappointed in him.

As I grappled with that memory, I was struck hard by thoughts of my own children. I was not an indifferent, neglectful father. I did my share of the chores. In the infant days, I took many turns at late-night feedings and staying home to care for them on days they were sick. I shuttled them to and from day care and pre-school, helped get them dressed every morning, and read books every night.

But having children had both filled a void and torn a hole in my identity that took me years to understand. The all-consuming nature of parenthood had put the brakes on any thoughts about the kind of person I wanted to become outside of parenting and teaching. I probably would never have biked across Europe or climbed Kilimanjaro, but for that period of time I had stopped dreaming.

Even seven years into parenthood, I felt that something was tugging at me that did not allow me to fully embrace the role that I had, to all appearances, fully embraced. I felt an almost constant desire to be relieved from my responsibilities and a tiny, nagging resentment that my life was on hold, that I was missing out on something even if I wasn’t sure what that “something” was.

And absolutely none of this was on my mind when in the dim twilight of the final scene of the film, Costner turned and saw the lone, young catcher. “Oh my god,” I whispered. “It’s his dad.”

It suddenly came crashing down on me that the whole film had been a journey of forgiveness, reconciliation—a second chance for a father and son to “have a catch”, to reaffirm a relationship, to salvage love.

Tears still streaming down my face, it didn’t matter that the ending became awkward and improbable and maybe a little silly; I was too lost between the memories of the son I had been and the father I had become. The singular thought that seared through by brain at that moment was simple, but enduring—you only get one chance to get fatherhood right. One chance.

Outside of Hollywood, there are no do-overs, no cornfields of forgiveness and reconciliation. I realized that I had one chance to be a good dad, maybe an excellent dad, and that already, the years were slipping by quickly.

The film did not so much change the way that I behaved as a father, but it completely changed the way I thought about it. Some of the resentment began to drain away and I more fully accepted everything that came with being a dad.

My clearest memory of how this change affected me came after a long day, after the kids had both been bathed and put to bed and it was my turn to get in the shower. I had to kick away the toys left behind to avoid slipping, tripping or otherwise injuring myself and stood in the stream of hot water and looked about the walls, festooned with colorful, tile stickers the kids had found. Part of me longed to take a shower like an adult, in a clean place without plastic octopi tangling my feet or sea stars staring at me with googly eyes.

And then the thought, the new “Field of Dreams” thought, hit me—look how rich my life is. All of this stuff surrounded me was the stuff of fatherhood and children, of life and love, of the chances that life gives to you only once.

 

“Just the Facts, Ma’am”–The Top 5 TV Detectives

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I was brainstorming writing topics with the family, when I told them I wanted to do a “Top 5” list of television detectives, a genre that I love.  The questions and debating began immediately.  “Well, how far are you going to go back?” asked Greg who has recently become fan of Jack Webb and Dragnet, watching that 1950’s show on Netflix.  Pretty soon we were all immersed in a challenge just to pick out the top 5 Dick Wolf characters from the Law and Order franchise.  Just for background, I skimmed a few “Top TV Detective” lists that I Googled and discovered passionate devotion to shows and characters that I had never even heard of.

So, my blog, my rules.  I decided to stick with shows that are reasonably current and with which I am familiar.  I decided that there would be no attempt at gender balance, so my apologies to SVU’s Olivia Benson, The Killing’s Sarah Linden, and Prime Suspect’s Jane Timoney, all tough, wonderful characters.

That does not mean that I did not establish some criteria.  All of my chosen detectives have some or all of the following characteristics.  I am a sucker for redemption tales, so I’m drawn toward wounded, tortured souls who are often edgy and unafraid of violence.  I like non-conformists whose quirkiness makes them endearing and who frequently frustrate the more straight-laced “suits” around them.  I favor characters who are driven, often by their own demons, to pursue a case that others might give up on and who have that inherent knack of knowing when an investigation is going in the wrong direction and who will doggedly pursue their instincts even when no one else may believe in them.

So, in reverse order we have:

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5.  Stephen Holder (The Killing)

For me and the three other fans who got hooked on AMC’s The Killing, the character Stephen Holder is worth every excruciating minute of some of the flawed elements of the show.

There are times where this show becomes maddeningly distracted by it’s multiple story lines and psychodramas, but the story is anchored by Holder (played by Joel Kinnaman) and his partner Sarah Linden (Mireille Enos) and their developing relationship.  Holder is a recovering drug addict, a tall gangly white guy who talks, at times, as if he thinks he is black.  However, his street sensibility and ability to relate to everyday people shows a sensitivity, and at times vulnerability, that is almost entirely absent in his partner’s character. In season 3 he gains entrance to the hangout of a hellish street gang by knowing their slang and despite their taunts, calmly approaches and dominates the gang’s hysterical pet pit bull, giving him a chance to try to glean some information from the thugs.

What makes Holder most endearing are his goofy one-liners and his use of language and metaphor.  He tells Sarah in one scene, “Think of me as your sensei in the bloodsport of life.” Even in the context of the scene, I’m not sure what that means.  Near the end of a scene in a hospital ward, an old man in a ratty robe pushing his way down the dingy hallway in a wheel chair, oxygen tank and all, approaches Holder who greets him with, “Yo, ancient player, got a smoke?”  To the delight of the viewer, the old man pulls out a pack and offers it to Holder. “Don’t mind if I do, thank you sir,” Holder says as he extracts one from the pack.  The old man rolls on down the hallway.

Holder also shows off flashes of insight as he stares at the board full of pictures of missing girls, victims of season 3’s serial killer.  He suddenly realizes that he and Linden are getting nowhere studying victimology, but should be trying to get into the head of the killer.  He blurts out to Linden, “See we been goin’ all Copernicus on this bitch (the case), when we should be Galileo; you feel me?  He gets nothing but a skeptical stare from Linden (“What’s wrong with your face, Linden.  Don’t stroke out on me.”), but explains that they need to become more like Galileo, adopt a more global perspective.  “It’s not about what these girls see; It’s about what he (the killer) sees.”

You won’t see Holder chasing down a bad guy, or flashing a gun, or engaging in a car chase on a weekly basis.  He’s a cerebral guy whose scars, humanity, and ability to turn a phrase push him into my top 5.  Word is that AMC has dropped The Killing, but that Netflix has picked it up and will produce a season 4.

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4.  Detective John Munch (Law and Order SVU)

Watching re-runs of SVU remains a guilty pleasure for me especially when I come across an older episode that somehow slipped past me.  However, even when I reach the point in an episode where I remember clearly what the outcome will be, I still enjoy the twists and turns and the fine ensemble cast.

I have to admit, though, that I dropped out of watching new episodes a few seasons ago.  The show lost too many critical characters, particularly Stabler (Christopher Meloni), and the cases got creepier.  So in reading up on Munch, it was news to me that he had “retired” and left the show.  I think I can hear the sucking sound of a very good series going down the drain.

Richard Belzer’s Munch, is a grouchy, cynical detective who entertains the rest of the department with his rants against authority and bureaucracy and his encyclopedic knowledge of conspiracy theories.  He created the character originally for the show Homicide: Life on the Streets (set in Baltimore) in 1993 and then made his way over to SVU as the same character in 1999. According to Wikipedia, “Munch has become the only fictional character, played by a single actor, to appear on 10 different television shows” including shows as disparate as 30 Rock, Arrested Development, and The X-Files.

Like Holder (The Killing), Munch provides contrast with his partners in part because of his crusty personality, but also because he is an intellectual who will frequently reference philosophy, history, literature and art, mostly to the quizzical stares of his partners or antagonists.  In one episode, faced by a government official who refuses to give him information related to an investigation, patiently explaining repeatedly that what Munch wants is “classified”, Munch finally yells at him, “What are the odds you have a picture of Joseph McCarthy tattooed to your ass!”

Munch has the world-weariness that I see in a lot of detective characters, but it’s not just that he has seen too much, but rather that he has a Sisyphus-like nature; while his efforts will never stem the tide of crime and abuse, he has to try.  He knows he is uniquely suited to the task so he continues to try to succeed in a broken system, working to solve the case in front of him, knowing that the cases will never end.  One senses an abiding sadness in him although we know little about his background. Sometimes the sadness flares into fury as it does in a famous scene where he rails against a judge that he views as being too soft on a man they have arrested, gets slapped with a hefty fine, gets declared that he is in contempt of the court, assures the judge that he does have contempt for his court, and ends up in jail.

Well, Detective Munch, I’m sorry to hear you have retired.  I will miss you. You certainly have earned a spot in the Law and Order Hall of Fame.  Maybe you’ll finally have time to nail down just who it was on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963.

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#3  Rust Cohle (True Detective)

I was pretty much hooked by this series from the moment I saw the opening montage of dark and moody images backed by the dusty, mournful lyrics of the Handsome Family’s song “Far From Any Road.”  The setting is in Louisiana in 2012 but the fractured timeline challenges the viewer to constantly pay attention to where the storyteller is in the narrative which stretches back to the original, haunting case in 1995 and even further back into Cohle’s (played brilliantly by Matthew McConaughey) tragic past.

Cohle just happens to fit every criterion I set out in the beginning.  He is tortured by the memory of a marriage and a child that he has lost and then by his descent into a long stint as a deep undercover agent, an experience that eventually lands him in a mental hospital wracked by drug abuse, PTSD, and insomnia.  He rebuilds his life as a homicide detective teamed with Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson).

McConaughey’s dual portrayal of Cohle, as both the tightly wound 1995 detective that his colleagues call “The Taxman” because he carries about a ledger in which he keeps copious case notes, and as the 2012 chain-smoking apparent burn-out case, is truly remarkable.

As the narrative bounces between his initial investigation of a gruesome, ritualistic murder of a young prostitute in 1995 to an interrogation regarding that investigation being done by two newly assigned detectives in 2012, his deep cynicism, misanthropy, and fatalism remain consistent. Repeatedly, both his captain and his partner beg him to stop spewing out his nihilistic viewpoint, especially in front of other detectives and their superiors.   During one point in the interrogation, when he reflects on the death of his daughter, he almost smiles, telling the detectives that he is happy that she did not suffer, and happy that she did not have to live in the world that he views as a morass of cruelty and evil.

The younger Cohle is comfortable chatting with a prostitute who not only gives him some vital information but also trusts him enough to sell him the Quaaludes, which he needs for sleep. When she appears ready to seduce him for free, he seems entirely detached and uninterested, driven on, it seems, more by the investigation than by any kind of moral code.  Sex, at that moment, would just have been a distraction, a waste of time that he needs for the case.  Likewise, he has no qualms about suddenly and viciously attacking two locals who he feels are withholding information from him that he needs.  He extracts it quickly from them, returns to the car, slips on his jacket and continues on.

The older Cohle convinces the two new detectives that he is just a guy, living behind a bar who is willing to come in for a chat about an old case of his (the 1995 murder of Dora Lange), an interrogation that becomes an extended game of chess.  He pulls out a cigarette and when told he cannot smoke gives them the choice. He gets to smoke, or he leaves.  When the conversation reaches mid-day, he informs them that, “It’s Thursday and it’s past noon.  Thursday is one of my days off. My days off I start drinking around noon.  You don’t get to interrupt that” and sends them off to bring him a supply of beer that will get him through the afternoon.

The chess game is not just the perks that he is able to extort as he takes them through the case but Cohle’s efforts to determine the renewed interest in a case that had supposedly been solved long ago.  He quickly deduces that they believe the true killer is still out there, something he has believed all along, something that eventually he must convince his old partner, Marty, to help him finally finish.

When Marty and Cohle are finally reunited, years seem to drop away from Rust as he reveals that he has never truly given up on the case, that he knew all along that they had never truly stopped the killer.  He infects his partner with their former passion for justice, something that has been smothered by the corruption of Louisiana politics in this case.

After the creepy and dramatic resolution, when justice is finally served, Cohle, for the first time expresses a bit of hope for the universe in a final conversation with Marty.  As they are walking away from the scene of the final showdown in the dark, they both look to the stars.  As they compare light and dark to good and evil, Marty concludes that the darkness must be ascendant.  Cohle, for once, sees it differently: “Once there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.”

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 #2 Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock)

How could anyone not like this show?

Certainly, Sherlock Holmes (played by Benedict Cumberpatch) whips through some of his monologues in lightening style that defies my Americanized ears to catch every word, but the show’s clever use of graphics, and the knowledge that I don’t need to catch every word as Holmes verbally dissects a scene or an individual leads me now to shrug my shoulders,not unlike Watson and Lestrade, who simply stand by while Holmes is “at it again.”

Holmes is not the tortured soul seeking redemption as many other detective characters; in fact he is maddeningly self-absorbed.  He is, however exceedingly high on the quirkiness scale and driven completely by any case that he does not find “boring.”

The producers have taken an iconic character and brought him into the 21st century unharmed.  They have made dramatic changes from the characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle, and it seems that every one of them works.  Watson (Martin Freeman) is not a blustering and often clueless accomplice, but rather a tested war veteran, anxious to be a part of the hunt.  Lestrade (Rupert Grave), generally portrayed by Doyle as a bumbling antagonist, is instead Holmes’s defender and ally.  Mrs. Hudson (Una Stubbs) provides both wise support and comic relief as she gently chides her unruly renter about shooting his gun into the walls to allay his boredom and helps to keep alive the running joke that Watson is gay.

Holmes himself remains quite intact. While they have softened Doyle’s character’s cocaine addiction into an overuse of nicotine patches presumably to quit smoking, Cumberpatch’s Holmes is still brilliantly observant, oblivious to many social niceties, and at turns both insufferably insensitive and surprisingly charming and thoughtful. That thoughtful side is always a surprise, but it comes through repeatedly with his fondness for Watson, his protectiveness of Mrs. Hudson, and his (eventual) tenderness toward Molly Cooper (Louise Brealey).  The writers had planned for Cooper to be in only one episode, but viewers responded so positively to her character and her hopeless crush on Holmes that they continued writing her into subsequent episodes.

The writers have even studied Doyle’s stories and culled key elements while being unafraid to change them dramatically and artfully weave in the modern use of cell phones, texting, and computer hacking.  Doyle’s A Scandal in Bohemia becomes A Scandal in Belgravia, but some key elements of the original–the introduction of Irene Adler, the royal family, scandalous documents—remain, as the 21st century challenges Sherlock to find the pictures locked in a cell phone, investigate “the woman” through a website that portrays her as a dominatrix, and eventually to swoop in and save her in response to her timely, almost final, text.

One particular element that separates Holmes from other TV detectives is that he is only interested in solving crimes for the intellectual stimulation and to fight off boredom and the depression that comes with it.  He feels little or no sense that he is he is serving justice and doing a service to society.  He feels no moral imperative to right wrongs.  In fact, in A Study in Pink, he becomes giddy as evidence mounts that London is being plagued by serial suicides.  He celebrates when visited by Lestrade in his role as “consulting detective” and wait for Lestrade’s departure before leaping into the air at the joy of the coming challenge:  “Brilliant!  Yes!!  Ah!  Four serial suicides and now a note! Ah, it’s Christmas!”  Mrs. Hudson tries to rein in his enthusiasm to no avail:  “Look at you, all happy: it’s not decent.”  Sherlock replies, “Who cares about decent. The game, Mrs. Hudson, is on!

In re-watching Cumberpatch at work, I’m not sure there is another actor alive who could pull off the character they have created for this wonderful series.  He is positively brilliant with his deadpan humor and pitch-perfect comic timing.

As a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes, it is great to have him back, more clever, more complex, and more fun than ever.

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 #1 DCI John Luther (Luther)

Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (Idris Elba) does not walk.  He stalks and swaggers his way though the grim streets of London often with his hands jammed into his pockets, moving from crime scenes, to interrogations with criminals, to prison cells, to the police headquarters often cloaked in grey shirt or grey overcoat.

In truth, Luther lives in a grey world.  The cinematography seems to continually project these dingy tones, and I suspect if London ever were to have a sunny day, that filming of the show would be cancelled.

It is established early on that Luther is a man driven by absolute conviction and plagued by moral ambiguity.  In the first scene of the first episode, he allows a truly heinous pedophile to dangle from a beam inside a warehouse until he gives up the location of a kidnapped child.  Instead of rescuing him immediately, Luther, clearly in anguish, questions him about the other children he has tortured and killed and tries to extract even more information, until the man (Henry Madsen) finally can hold on no longer and plunges to the floor, critically injured.

Even though Luther is cleared of any wrongdoing, the next episode finds him on the roof of the police station standing at the very edge and contemplating the street far below.  A fellow detective finds him and begins to talk him down, reassuring him that no one would shed a tear over the injuries to Madsen.  Luther responds, “Doesn’t make it right” to which his colleague replies, “It does make it a little less wrong.”

And this is Luther’s world.  He is surrounded by unsavory criminals with whom he must work, and sometimes negotiate, in order to solve a case or protect a loved one.  In one of the most bizarre and chilling twists, he finds himself initially threatened by the psychopathic Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson) who eventually turns into a trusted ally.  She has committed a double murder that he cannot prove her guilty of and over time comes to think of herself as John’s protector.

Because he is unafraid to work outside the law and occasionally to defy authority in his search for justice, he is, like some superheroes (Batman and Spiderman come to mind) thought to possibly be criminal himself.  Up on the rooftop, he even questions his own actions as he talks with his colleague asking, “Do you not worry you’re on the devil’s side without even knowing it?”  As time goes on he comes under the active scrutiny of a female investigator, DS (Detective Sergeant) Gray (Nikki Amula-Bird) who actively suspects him of wrongdoing.  She turns to Luther’s loyal protégé DS Justin Ripley (Warren Brown) to confide in him and share her suspicions and observations that Luther is a “dirty” cop.  Ripley tries to explain to her that, “there’s a difference between getting your hands dirty, and being dirty.” (Note: all of the quotations sound much cooler with a British accent.)

As he stalks though the world, Luther appears alternately weary, disgusted by the humans he must deal with, and confident that somehow he can make a difference.  He confides at one point that, “I’ve been a police officer since God was a boy.”  When in one scene, Alice confronts Luther’s estranged wife, Zoe, and asks why John pursues his work when it has cost him so much including his wife.  Zoe answers evenly, “He believes that one life is all we have, life and love.  Whoever takes life, steals everything.”  In defending the lives of others, he seems to care little about his own; he lives not expecting love or hope.  In a conversation with one soul whom he has saved, she tells him, “You should be married, be happy and everything.” He quietly replies, “No one will have me.”

Zoe’s assessment of him gives us the clue to his obsessive dedication to the work. He never seems to sleep and never pursues a relationship once he has lost his wife.  In a crime scene, he has Sherlock-like instincts, observing the evidence of a double homicide, analyzing the probable sequence of events, and then confronting his partner, Ripley.  “Am I missing something?  Does that seem right to you?”  Ripley replies, “None of it seems right to me.” Luther then states, “’Cause it’s not right, is it? It’s not right.”  Luther is not someone who breezes in with all the answers, but as the team struggles to put the pieces together, he repeatedly uses variations of the phrases above:  “What am I missing?”  “Something is missing.”  “This isn’t right. “  However, the questions frequently bring on the insights he needs, and he bolts off on his own, confident that he has found the key to unlock the case.

Viewers will either find Luther as a man looking to die or a man so confident in his way of doing things that he has a kind of bravery that borders on the foolhardy.  In the jaw-dropping finale of series 2, a case where the team must track down and stop a pair of psychopathic twins playing a game of murder and mayhem, Luther offers himself up as a sacrifice.  As he approaches one of the twins, unarmed, facing off against the young man who is holding a “deadman” switch connected to a suicide vest with enough explosives to destroy a city block, Luther soaks himself in gasoline, tosses the man a lighter, and encourages him to roll the dice with which he and his brother have been creating havoc.  Either the man will give up, or he gets to immolate Luther.  Luther’s ploy ends up being a brilliant move in a chess game where he ends up being just one move ahead of the suspect.

Luther ends up being my #1 because of the magnificent work of Idris Elba.  With many of the other characters, I marveled at the skill of the actors.  I never felt Elba was acting.  He becomes Luther. According to my reading on this show, it was never meant to be more than one series.  However, plans are in the works for a full-length feature film.

Conclusion

 Whew!  This was a lot of work!!  I’ve gotten so many great comments and suggestions, and I know that I could do this all over again and come up with 5 other great detective characters.  Someone should absolutely do the 5 best female detectives, just to balance out my lack of gender equity.  Maybe I will take that on later, but this has been so consuming that I have not fed my wild birds in the back yard for 3 days and have barely looked at my vegetable garden.  The massive up-side is that I have been able to re-watch hours of these great shows in the name of research.  Labor of love!