Wallander - Where Have All the Detectives Gone?
The Sunday Times, 7 December 2008
I really want Wallander to succeed. I want him to find an answer to a great unsolved crime on the box ó who killed all the detectives? One by one, they have gone missing into that bad night, down the slick and ill-lit mean streets. The hard-bitten, heart-of-gold, contrarian puzzle-solvers with autistic social skills and parched one-liners have vanished from their electric habitat. Television used to be full of them: lonely creatures, typically a single alpha-male travelling with a younger, smaller, attendant chap. Remember the great detectives of your past? They mark your generation: Adam Adamant, Maigret, Callan, Shoestring, Van der Valk, Cracker, Poirot, Morse, Tennison, Taggart, Rebus . . . the list is a cryptic war memorial of unexplained death. And thatís without any of the Americans.
The genealogy of the television detective has a brace of antecedents. The genre was invented by Sherlock Holmes and then merged with the gumshoes of Raymond Chandlerís Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett. The hybrid was the template for one of the most enduring and inventive characters of modern drama. Although the accents, hats, hobbies and drinks changed, the essential qualities have remained faithful to their origins. The detective was always lonely, the family always broken; there was always a special empathy with the dead and a sense of dislocation from society. These were people who saw too much and felt too much. And there was the inevitable procedural archeology of sin.
So whatever is murdering the detectives? Have they gone the way of the TV cowboy?
Wallander is a Swedish detective. A lot of the natural motives and character traits of the genre ó depression, drinking, loneliness, nihilism, busted families ó are already Scandinavian traits. But this detective is more a conformist than an outsider. But then heís also Kenneth Branagh. And Kenneth Branagh is close to being a thespian genius. He may also be one of the greatest wastes of talent of this generation. Every time he appears on the small screen, heís in a class of his own. A thoughtful, truthful and strong, muscular actor who does real acting as opposed to just ďbeingĒ. Being is what most television performances are. Soap operas are full of blokes being characters in a soap opera, which is only vaguely related to your actual acting.
Branagh is one of the few thesps who can do it both on stage and small screen with appropriate intensity. They were lucky to get him as this generic detective, and he was lucky to get Wallander as a great character. He fulfils all the demands of the classic detective: the stoic face, the hurt eyes, the clumsy emotion and the sudden bursts of condensed anger.
The screen itself, the background and the sets, all look wonderful. The production is huge and glossy, the camera set to stun. Theyíve pulled all the big wide lenses out, the dressing and detail is a Scandinavian festival of immaculate good taste ó polished wood and despair. Itís so pretty, it almost overtakes the production and works against the grain and grit. But Branagh walks through each frame of liberal taste looking suitably awkward and de trop. The final production credits are a Tetris of European television stations, all drowning in dubbed Americana and aching for one international euro-seller that will make them proud to be part of the business called show.
Well, they got all the ingredients right, and it was nicely slow, Bergman directed by a committee. Critics like things 20% slower than most of the rest of you. But Wallander is only a qualified success. Branagh did uncover why we are no longer watching the detectives. Itís the plot that done it. Theyíve run out of stories. Weíve come to the end of procedural narrative.
Television has been indiscriminately digging up plots with a bulimic abandon for decades. Plots arenít renewable resources, you know. There comes a point when you have seen them all, know all the suspects by heart, spot every twist and red herring, every false move and secret passage. We now live in the post-plot age. And the detective simply canít adapt. If there is no demurral, no clues and no suspects to gather in the library, then heís just another sad man, whatís the point? Wallander fell at the very ordinariness of his story, the un-surprise of the ending. Itís not the detectives; itís the stories that got small.