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The opening sequence is visually stunning and ultimately horrifying. It includes a scruffy, middle-aged man rushing through a field abloom in golden blossoms. For a sense of the field, think of the feature film Everything is Illuminated.

Only everything here is ominous, as the camera shows him running toward a teenage girl standing in the middle of the sea of gold who is holding what looks like a plastic jug of gasoline. As he waves his badge and screams for her to stop, the girl raises the jug over her head and starts to douse herself with the petrol.

And then, she clicks a cigarette lighter, and sets herself and all the lovely blossoms around her ablaze. And all the man and the viewer can do is look on in horror.

Welcome to the world of Wallander, the new Masterpiece-Mystery! British detective series starring Kenneth Branagh that makes its debut tonight on PBS. In a TV world where everything seems to be getting smaller and cheaper, with late-night talk shows replacing dramas in prime time, and low-rent reality TV replacing anything that requires a script, it is a joy to see a first-rate, high-quality production featuring a genuine star. And this star is bringing his best game to an intelligent script that deals with challenging, knotty, complicated issues and characters that mirror the real world in which we live.

Not that joy is going to be the first word any viewer is likely to think of once they've seen this BBC import. Wallander is dark, bleak and existential - even by my standards (and I love dark, bleak and existential detective dramas). But this one, set in the Swedish port city of Ystad (pronounced EE-stad), makes HBO's The Wire seem almost bright and cheery by comparison.

Random camera shots show goons beating and kicking people on downtown streets late at night. Medical examiners chat about a 5-year-old boy who tried to put his own eyes out, and a 7-year-old who tried to cut off his thumb - early experiments in self-destruction.

And, just in case the 15-year-old girl who burned to death wasn't gruesome enough, suddenly a rash of murder victims starts to appear in the pilot and each of them has been scalped - yes, scalped and not very cleanly.

Meanwhile, the central character charged with solving these crimes, Detective Kurt Wallander (Branagh), seems like a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown - only he's too clinically depressed to summon the energy for a full-blown emotional collapse. At the end of that first scene with the teenage girl's self-immolation, Wallander literally starts to tremble as he stands alone in the field of yellow, and you instantly comprehend how emotionally fragile and battered he is. And, by the way, Branagh communicates all that inner torment with hardly a word - just the full use of his body as an instrument playing the scales of psychic pain.

The theme here is one of inner and outer chaos - Wallander is a postmodern, post-apocalyptic cop drama set in the land of existential angst. It's not for everybody, but neither was Bergman.

"What kind of world are we leaving for a 15-year-old girl that she would burn herself to death?" Wallander wonders aloud late at night in the morgue, giving voice to one of the central questions of the pilot and the series. It's the kind of question someone losing his or her faith asks of an absent God. Only, you're pretty sure Wallander lost his faith long ago - if he ever had any.

In the end, what ultimately makes Wallander special is Branagh. There is simply no one with this kind of acting chops anywhere on American TV - spare me your soliloquies on behalf of HBO. Gabriel Byrne is great on In Treatment, but he is not in this league, believe me.

Based on the first three episodes made available for screening, this is Branagh's vehicle from beginning to end. The camera shoots Branagh like a movie star, rarely leaving him out of the frame, constantly exploring - no, crawling all over - his face as it visits the shadows and plumbs the depths of this troubled, but principled character. Be warned: Branagh looks like hell - red-eyed, paunchy and always unshaven.

"These are our lives. And they're fragile, precarious, miraculous," this homicide investigator says. "They're all we have."

It might sound shocking to hear someone say this in these downsized days of diminished expectations, but here is a new series with the potential to be as important a part of viewers' lives as anything from the so-called good old days when giants like Inspector Morse and Jane Tennyson were solving crimes on PBS. That's not something I can say for any other new TV series this season.

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Masterpiece-Mystery! airs 10 p.m. Sunday on MPT, Channel 22, and WETA, Channel 26.

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