Since PBS s Masterpiece Theatre split itself in three last year creating Masterpiece Classic, Masterpiece Mystery!, and Masterpiece Contemporary the series as a whole has been more focused with better marketing opportunities for the PBS stalwart. Last year s Jane Austen-a-thon and this year s Dickens weeks of Masterpiece Classic offered a rallying point for fans of these literary lions.
Masterpiece Contemporary remains the odd man out because it s a bit of a grab bag while Masterpiece Mystery! more consistently satisfies whodunit fans, often in a setting before the advent of DNA analysis.
The latest Masterpiece installment, Wallander, could feel at home under the Contemporary or Mystery! banner because it s a modern-day mystery. It airs as part of Masterpiece Mystery!, introducing a new character to a roster that already includes Inspector Morse, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.
Kenneth Branagh stars in three 90-minute stand-alone episodes as Kurt Wallander, a Swedish sleuth from the best-selling novels by Henning Mankell. (Mankell has written seven Wallander novels and at least another three movies are planned.)
Filmed in the seaside town of Ystad, Sweden, where the books are set, Wallander has a European-but-not-British look about it. Sunday s (9 p.m. EDT) episode, Sidetracked, begins with images both beautiful and disturbing: A teen-age girl wanders through a field of rape flowers. Wallander arrives, at the behest of the landowner, and tries to speak with the girl, but before he can, she douses herself in gasoline and sets herself ablaze.
Unlike CSI -type crime-solvers, who would likely crack a bad pun, Wallander is understandably horrified and haunted, which turns out to be his general disposition.
I keep seeing her face, he says. The way she looked at me.
He s distant from his daughter, estranged from his father and looks like he s in perpetual need of a good night s sleep. The depressive detective, who sometimes seems paralyzed by indecision in his personal life, becomes consumed by his cases, which include the scalping deaths of several citizens. Are the deaths somehow related to the girl s suicide?
Sidetracked begins the Wallander series in an antiseptic, cool storytelling style. There s little to no humor and few scenes of dramatic flourish. Its sole similarity to American police shows is Wallander s tendency to rush into potentially dangerous situations without backup, and that only happens in the last half-hour.
At a January PBS press conference in Universal City, Calif., Branagh said Wallander shows the impact of the job on his character.
You might call it a stereotype of the flawed detective with a certain set of problems in the modern world, but I think people do have certain sets of problems that are fairly common, he said. This is a man who finds it extraordinarily difficult to cope with a very difficult job. If you discovered decapitated bodies, rotting bodies, if you encountered human violence regularly and intimately, I think it puts you under pressure to be functioning in all other areas of your life. Someone like Wallander can t. A price that he pays for that is dysfunction in the rest of his life.
Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton has what she called a non-feminist theory on the appeal of a character like Wallander to female viewers.
To many women, nothing is more appealing than a lonely, tortured man because it inspires a feeling of if I could just love him up, he ll be fine, she said, tracing the trait of the troubled detective through such characters as Morse, Adam Dagliesh, Inspector Lynley and now Wallander. So I think it is something about a woman s reaction to this that keeps them popular, at least on our air.