‘Young Wallander’ is an origin story that’s not an origin story
While America keeps calling its pop culture heroes out of retirement—looking at you Maverick, Bill and Ted, and the Cobra Kai crew—British television has long been a haven for cops, spies, and detectives of certain age, whose experience is surpassed only by their ennui. In order to reboot these dinosaurs, you’d have to turn back time. Thus, Inspector Morse got a Mad Men-style retro makeover as Endeavour, Prime Suspect was reborn in the seventies as Tennison, and stuffy Sherlock Holmes begat hipster Sherlock. Now, Wallander—the dour Swedish police inspector created by the late novelist Henning Mankell, played by Kenneth Branagh in the BBC adaptation—has gone back to the future as Young Wallander. Surely, it won’t be long before we see Foyle’s Great War, Miss Marple: The Finishing School Years, and Hercule, in which hot, insubordinate young Poirot patrols the mean streets of Belle Époque Brussels.
Rookie cop Kurt Wallander, played by the generically handsome Swedish actor Adam Pålsson, doesn’t bear much resemblance to Wallander 1.0, either in looks or temperament. They don’t even exist in the same timeline: though it’s billed as an “origin story,” the six-part, English-language Netflix series takes place in modern-day Malmö. With his hoodies, social awkwardness, and breathless enthusiasm for his job, Wallander has a wide-eyed Peter Parker quality; Mankell’s depressed, disillusioned veteran is unrecognizable in this do-gooder, whose naiveté and impulsiveness keep getting in the way of his sharp instincts.
The series opens with a horrific murder in the seedy housing project Wallander calls home. When police arrest his teenage neighbor, Wallander immerses himself in the twisty case, aided by his best friend from the police academy (Yasen Atour), the cooly competent investigating detective (Leanne Best), and her boss, Superintendent Hemberg (Richard Dillane), a mentor who’s as tough and jaded as Kurt is green and idealistic. (The cast is a mix of Scandinavian and English actors—and accents.)
Wallander meets Mona (Ellise Chappell), a charity worker with a savior complex of her own; in the novels, Mona was Wallander’s hairdresser ex-wife. There are other Easter eggs: Wallander’s troubled relationship with his father, a painter who disapproves of his sons’ career choice, and his love of opera, inspired by Hemberg. Mankell, who wrote short stories about Wallander’s early cases, gave his blessing to the series before his death.
Nevertheless, Young Wallander may disappoint fans of the novels, their previous film and television adaptations, and Nordic noir in general. Not just the character but the setting falls short of the genre’s expectations. They filmed the series in Lithuania, not Sweden, and, instead of the bucolic small-town milieu of the novels, it takes place in a generic big city populated by shady billionaires, Russian mobsters, desperate refugees, and marching fascists. Once, these elements might have suggested the dark underside of Sweden’s socialist paradise; today, it could be anywhere.
What Young Wallander loses in site-specific atmosphere, however, it gains in universality. And, by the end, Kurt is sadder, wiser, and altogether closer to the Wallander of Mankell’s novels, having learned that sometimes crime does pay, and the good guys don’t always win. Ultimately, it’s not clear what we gain by updating Wallander’s twenties to the present day; it cheats Wallander fans out of a truly compelling and believable backstory while unnecessarily complicating things for newbies. But future seasons will undoubtedly continue to bridge the gap between young and old Wallander, and find an audience among those who prefer slick, Sherlock-style origin stories to period pieces in the Perry Mason mold.