The 2012-13 TV season doesn't officially begin for two weeks. That's when everyone starts keeping score, anyway.

But I say a meal starts as soon as they bring out the food. So forget the calendar and the Nielsen statistics - let's dig in. Just save room for Downton Abbey.

First up is one of Masterpiece Mystery!'s most refined pleasures: Kenneth Branagh as the saturnine Swedish police detective Kurt Wallander. This is Branagh's third go-round as author Henning Mankell's compelling character, an inspector in the southern city of Ystad.

"Wallander III" offers up three self-contained cases over consecutive Sundays at 9 p.m.

Just a little warning: Don't be put off by the start of "An Event in Autumn," the initial film. That is indeed Wallander smiling contentedly, the very picture of domestic happiness as he moves into a newly purchased farmhouse with Vanja (Saskia Reeves). (They became lovers in 2010's "The Fifth Woman.")

How long do you think this cozy arrangement will last?

The remains of a young woman's body are found on a beach. It would appear she went overboard from a ferry crossing the Baltic between Poland and Sweden, but everyone on board is accounted for.

Well, at least Wallander can unwind at home - until, that is, his Labrador digs up a freshly buried human jawbone in the corner of his yard. Now the crows and the gulls are taking turns mocking him with their cries, and Kurt is not happy.

There is no mystery series more atmospheric than "Wallander." The camera spends a good deal of time lingering on the inspector's face. And no one does rueful quite like Branagh. It would seem he preps for this role by spending a month catching only a few hours sleep a night in an uncomfortable chair.

As they walk across a field toward Wallander's new residence, his subordinate Anne-Britt Hoglund (Sarah Smart) remarks, "Your house has a name, you know. Black Heights. Seems appropriate."

He looks quizzical. "I'm basically quite a cheerful person," he responds, provoking peals of laughter from Hoglund.

She will soon pay, as does almost everyone around Wallander eventually, for his obdurate determination to avenge the dead.

"The Dogs of Riga," the following week, also finds Wallander in strange waters, in this case Latvia, for an uncharacteristic bit of international intrigue.

A couple of Latvian gang members found disfigured and floating in a dinghy in Swedish waters result in the inspector uncovering corruption at the highest levels of government in the Eastern European country.

It's all a little far-fetched. Wallander isn't really the superspy type. If anything, he's rather vulnerable. At one point, he gets outrun on the cobbled streets of Riga by a woman in high heels, his ally Kristina (Rebekah Staton). The car chase isn't exactly Bourne quality. It's silly to put Kurt in heroic mode. What should we call him - Captain Broody?

"Wallander III" ends on a high note with "Before the Frost," the most haunting installment of the batch. It's a spooky confluence of religious zealotry, arson, and twisted patriarchs. (In the book, the case was investigated by Kurt's estranged daughter, Linda, who followed in her father's dogged footsteps. Here Kurt is the detective but he gets a testy rapprochement with his daughter, played by Jeany Spark.)

"Wallander," as you might expect, has a very Scandinavian tone, full of gray landscapes and characters shot through murky panes of glass. But the acting is excellent, down to supporting-cast members such as Søren Malling and Donald Sumpter. Even the theme music - Emily Barker's "Nostalgia" - enhances the mood. And mood is Wallander's exquisite métier.

Evocative 'Crimson Petal'

Another British import, The Crimson Petal and the White, also does a remarkable job of establishing atmosphere - in this case, a vivid evocation of the more squalid precincts of Victorian London. But despite many assets, this mini-series, airing on cable's Encore Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m., misplaces its promise.

Based on Michael Faber's 2002 best-seller, The Crimson Petal and the White tells the story of Sugar (Romola Garai), a sharp 19-year-old prostitute who was born to the life, raised in a brothel by the calculating Mrs. Castaway (our expat Gillian Anderson).

Sugar wins the rapt attentions of William Rackham (Chris O'Dowd), a dithery, dilettantish gentleman with a sickly wife (Amanda Hale) at home. He is soon negotiating with Mrs. Castaway for "exclusive patronage."

Eventually Sugar will get what she always thought she wanted - the trappings of respectability - only to learn in the most painful fashion how indelibly the class lines are drawn.

Garai and O'Dowd (you may remember him as the cop who patiently wins Kristen Wiig's heart in Bridesmaids) are outstanding. And Richard E. Grant is terribly convincing as a monstrous doctor.

The real accomplishment of The Crimson Petal is its powerful depiction of London's slums in the 1870s - the poverty, filth, disease, and sheer callousness of human life. It is an extraordinary production re-creation, well worth seeing.

Unfortunately, it's included only in the first hour and briefly in the last. The rest of the mini is taken up with drawing-room dramaturgy, making the experience feel like an endless Ibsen play - one with some very naughty bits thrown in, which I don't think Henrik would approve of.

This mini-series is very graphic, almost defiantly so. It seems determined to show us the hypocrisy of Victorian mores, with proper gentleman rutting like dogs in alleys with fallen women. It also shows us women squatting on chamber pots and Garai administering some very corrosive chemicals to end an incipient pregnancy.

There is much to recommend in The Crimson Petal despite its long stretches of tedium. Make sure you catch the riveting opening and see how long you stick.

'The New Normal'

Retention is never a problem with American sitcoms. They are designed to immediately get you in a headlock and then hammer away at your funny bone.

NBC is being unbelievably aggressive in promoting its comedies. Go On and The New Normal were scheduled to start their seasons back-to-back on Tuesday. Then, just a few days ago, the network announced it was moving up their debuts to Monday to take advantage of The Voice as a lead-in.

I don't really buy that argument, since NBC has The Voice on just about every night this week. But let's not quibble.

So the pilot of The New Normal will air at 10 p.m. Monday, followed by the pilot of Go On at 10:30. On Tuesday, they will run new episodes in their regular time slots, Go On at 9 p.m. and The New Normal at 9:30. Any more housekeeping I can do for you, NBC, or can we get to the shows?

I know one thing: The inside of Ryan Murphy's head must be a very strange place. The prolific producer flips back and forth from the gruesome to the giggly, from Nip/Tuck to Glee, from American Horror Story to this quippy number.

The New Normal is about a sweet Midwestern girl named Goldie (Georgia King) who got pregnant at 15. She decides to start her life over with her daughter in Los Angeles, hiring herself out as a surrogate to an affluent gay couple (Andrew Rannells and Justin Bartha).

Hilarity ensues. No really, it does. Bartha is the more macho guy, drinking beer and watching football, but Rannells gets all the great lines, such as "I would like a skinny blond child who doesn't cry."

But what gives The New Normal its comic edge is the abrasive pairing of Ellen Barkin as King's outspokenly bigoted Nana and NeNe Leakes as Rannells' feisty assistant. It has the potential to be one of the best running sitcom battles since Archie and Meathead.

The New Normal was preemptively dropped by the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City. (An independent station in the market will air the sitcom on Saturday nights.)

Forget the subject matter - I can see why this show might be problematic. Murphy must have NBC's standards and practices arbiter tied up in a closet. There's language in here I've never heard on network TV. If The New Normal isn't blue, it's turquoise.

It's also fast and funny. As long as Ryan continues to mix humor from the cute and the curdled sides of the aisle, this show will entertain.

'Go On'

Go On, though it is a far more conventional sitcom, faces a trickier task. I'm not even sure if I have to describe the premise at this point. Monday's pilot has already aired twice in August. Quick recap: Matthew Perry stars as Ryan King, a clever sports-talk radio host who joins a sad-sack group of patients at a community center therapy group.

It was obvious from other roles even before he played Chandler Bing on Friends that Perry had a gift for TV comedy, a combination of timing, intonation, facial expression, and physicality. He's still got it, even though he looks a little dead-eyed at times.

He still pours on the energy and the charm, but there's a hint of surrender in his manner these days.

The problem with Go On is that he so dominates the rest of his group. There's a serious charisma shortage in the room, and that just won't work. Every successful sitcom is based on an ensemble, and Perry has no one to play off.

I'm guessing the show will gradually abandon its basic setup and focus more and more on Ryan at the radio station or other sports-related plotlines.

After all, it's Terrell Owens who gets the best line in the pilot: "That's a shameful waste of fruit."

Go On had better do more to support Perry or this will go down as a terrible waste of his talent.

New TV Shows

"Wallander III": Sundays, Sept. 9-23, at 9 p.m. on WHYY TV12.

The Crimson Petal and the White: Monday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Encore.

The New Normal: Monday at 10 p.m. on NBC10.

Go On: Monday at 10:30 p.m. on NBC10.

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