Television. God, I love television. I love the way it surprises you, every now and then, with something that really slaps you in the face. Every now and then - not always, and seemingly much less rarely than before - you can find something that's such a cut above the usual dross that it's stunning.*
Yes. Wallander, the gloomy Swedish detective, Kenneth Branagh looking mournful in a Volvo, Midsomer Murders set in Ikea... and yet, and yet... it's so much more than all the cliches you can set up like skittles. I really think it's a bit special, and there are a few reasons for that.
I know what you're meant to say - that the Swedish originals were better, much more stark, much less cosy, more authentic to the books, and so on - and while I found myself intrigued by them, I wasn't entirely gripped. I don't know if I can put it down to one particular thing that's different about the English version, but perhaps, if I were to try and call it, it would be Kenneth Branagh's performance.
In other detective shows, I think the detectives' private lives are sub-plots to rumble alongside the main action of killing, bulk out the script to an hour and forty and give you some distraction from guessing whodunnit. In Wallander, the central character's doubt, turmoil and despair are the story; the murders are secondary. Wallander isn't there to crack the case; quite often the cases crack him, leaving the sting of regret, remorse, guilt - all those things he could ordinarily evade. All those things he can't explain away. All those failures, and faults, and wrong turns. This isn't a leader, a charismatic figure, a maverick - just the one person we happen to be focussing on, frequently getting it wrong in his professional and personal relationships.
And there are other light touches with the character - the inability to conduct proper relationships; the unfriendliness of home; sleeping in chairs instead of in bed as a symptom of dysfunction; always at the mercy of the mobile phone with its curious, other-worldly ringtone.
Then there's the look of the thing, the majestic photography, endless summer fields stretching out around, the darkness of the interiors and the vast empty spaces both outdoors and indoors. This Wallander lives in a Hopper world, spending his time in restaurants, cafes, on the road, on his way to places, meeting strangers whose lives he can't quite change for the better, not getting there in time to do any good.
Also, there's the pace of it, the immersion, the threads that carry on from one story to another. Wallander kills a man and can't forget about it; spends most of the next episode haunted by what he's done. This is a world with consequences, where things really matter, where people really get hurt. It's a detective show, of course, and there are killers to be unmasked and brought to justice, but one where the Kensington Gore isn't just splatter, and has come, you can almost believe, from real human beings.
And you don't always get a happy ending, because of that. Wallander always offers the possibility that you might not get that redemption; that the crime can't be undone by finding the killer, and that the horrors remain in those who are left behind. These aren't cunning stories tied up with a bow once they're done a dusted; these are deeper, darker, more sinister - as you might imagine murders to be. The darkness spreads out across the screen, and touches everyone on it. It's quite hypnotic, quite brilliant.
Television. How I love you, television, when you bring me things like this.
* I don't know if it's the presence of the usual dross that makes the existence of the good stuff seem all the better, like lilies on a dung-pile; but I still tend to have high expectations for television, no matter how much it disappoints me. It still has the power to sparkle, even if you think it might not.