06/21/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Our TV Sleuths Need to Take a Page from British Mysteries

Why do British crime dramas provide unforgettable moments on television, while our TV detectives charge around like kids with cap guns?

Check out Wallander, the newest BBC offering through PBS "Masterpiece Mystery!" The first episode, "Sidetracked," opens with a teenage girl setting herself ablaze in a brilliant yellow field of rapeseed. Wallander, the detective played by a red-eyed, desperate looking Kenneth Branagh, shoulders through the rippling field to save her. His failure haunts him as he tries to uncover why she committed suicide.

"Wallander" isn't originally a British creation -- he's the lead detective in Swedish novelist Henning Mankell's brilliant mystery novels. But he falls into that beloved British category of divorced, whiskey-sodden, prickly detectives, and you easily feel the man's sleep-deprived, soul-searing pain as he puzzles out crimes. This man is no hero, just a hard worker, a guy who actually jumps when a gun is fired in his direction. In the second episode, his life is saved not by martial arts, a fat IQ, or special effects, but because he trips over a rug at the right time to dodge a bullet. The man is flawed, just as we are.

British detectives are quirky without being silly. They make mistakes, and they're finitely human instead of being superheroes. I'm thinking of the stunning "Inspector Morse" series here, with the brilliant actor John Thaw as the crabby, opera-loving detective who tramps around the damp Thames Valley. Our UK neighbors also gave us the indomitable Dame Helen Mirren as Jane Tenneson in Prime Suspect. That DCI had a shaky love life and a weakness for the bottle, too, but her ballsy sex appeal, the gritty plot lines, and the squad room tension kept us riveted. Let us not forget Miss Marple, either, that icon of tea-sipping, gossipy decorum; the poetic Adam Dalgliesh; or my personal favorite, the homely, aristocratic Lord Peter Wimsey.

Meanwhile, who's fighting crime on this side of the pond? Our best known TV crime fighters reside in Miami, led by crooked-necked Horatio Caine (played by David Caruso), who punctuates his pseudo-profundities by donning sunglasses. Sure, the cars are fast and its fun to ogle the thong girls strutting their implants around the swimming pools. (Where do casting directors find so many leggy extraterrestrials?) But the crime team isn't at all haunted or driven. Not even the autopsy doc, Alexx Woods, played by Khandi Alexander, tugs at our heart strings as she strokes each victim's chilly scalp and murmurs, "Poor baby."

We have those Cougar detectives, too, most notably Holly Hunter as Grace Hanadarko in "Saving Grace" and Kyra Sedgwick as Deputy Chief Brenda Johnson in "The Closer." But, once you get it that Grace is always confessing to an angel named Earl, and that Brenda can never find her reading glasses in those Mary Poppins carpet bags she insists on carrying, the novelty wears off.

The BBC crime dramas shine because they're character driven and well written. These shows give only a nod to forensic science; even in Wallander, the most anyone does is break into a computer or pick up a gun with a pen through the trigger guard, sans latex gloves. On our side of the pond, we create unidimensional detectives because we're focused on one-upping each other on plot devices that show the weirdest ways to die or the coolest tricks in the lab. There's thumping porno music in the lab scenes to convince us that science is sexy, but that's just plain creepy.

I suppose we do all right when it comes to getting campy. Guilty pleasures abound in Psych, Bones, and Monk, shows that are really screwball comedies at heart with a few murders thrown in for laughs. But these shows seldom ask us to dwell on social issues, victims or, God forbid, human behavior. They rely on soundtracks to produce a sniff, or to at least give us a sense that something momentous might have happened when we weren't looking. Ultimately, though, grazing through American crime shows is like eating bags of peanut M&Ms: all of those great colors should taste different, but they don't, and at the end you feel like your mouth is coated with sawdust.