Tuned In

TV Tonight: Broadchurch

I didn't want to watch one more moody drama about a child murder, either. But this British drama is excellent, most of all for how it treats the living.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Colin Hutton / Kudos / ITV

Maybe the best way for me to tell you how good Broadchurch is is to tell you how little I wanted to watch it. TV has been wall to wall this season with shows about killings and killers–Rectify, Hannibal, Top of the Lake, The Fall, The Bridge, The Killing, Low Winter Sun, The Following–many of them very good, but enough that I was not dying to spend eight episodes with one more. I’m not a particular fan of mysteries, British or otherwise; I’ve always seen them as one of those passions, like sudoku or collecting souvenir spoons, that I simply lack the gene for. And (this is an entirely personal, not critical opinion, but still) I have a particularly hard time with any story that involves the death of a child, much less one that centers on it.

But while I was on the road to the TCA press tour last week, I popped in an episode. And another. And another. Broadchurch, which debuts tonight on BBC America, drew me in despite myself, because it is a murder mystery that is about far more than its murder or its mystery.

The series’ premise is simple enough. Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), a detective in the seaside town of Broadchurch, returns from holiday to find that her promised promotion has been given away to Alec Hardy (David Tennant, an ex-Doctor from the Doctor Who series), a prickly outsider eager to redeem himself from a past career disgrace. Miller’s bad week is quickly far worsened with discovery on a local beach of the body of an 11-year-old neighbor child.

The killing was intimate–strangulation–and the evidence suggests that the murder, like many, was personal. But then any crime, in this quiet, tight-knit (but also claustrophobic) little town is inevitably going to be personal: all corners of the community are going to be touched by grief, by anger, and eventually by suspicion.

This is where Broadchurch really shines. Like the first season of AMC’s The Killing, the series is concerned not just with the whodunit but with the aftermath of a murder on families, neighbors, and investigators. (Unlike that season, Broadchurch resolves the mystery definitively and satisfyingly, but of the solution we shall speak no more.)

Miller finds herself at the nexus of all three: the dead boy was the son of her close friend, Beth (Jodie Whittaker), whose marriage begins unraveling under the strain of mourning. Even as Miller doggedly works the case, she bristles at the brusqueness with which Hardy questions the townspeople, as if she in some way dreads seeing the killer found. It will, it seems, most likely be someone whom everyone knows, and it will tear the town apart with recrimination and self-blame.

But those come anyway, even before the resolution (which I did not see coming, but full disclosure, I am crap at mystery-sleuthing). Exacerbated by the probing of a hungry tabloid reporter from out of town, Broadchurch’s secrets and its denizens’ pasts are exposed and neighbors wildly accused. Many townspeople will fall under suspicion and be cleared, but as Hardy and Miller check out alibis and possible motives, they uncover a web of ordinary sins and shames. It’s not a cynical story of a sunny town that hides corruption and dysfunction; it’s simply the recognition that a crime, here as anywhere else, is often the latest link in a chain of hurt going back generations. No one–the boy’s family, the local vicar, the investigators–is spared.

I think that I am making Broadchurch out to be a downer, and, OK, it is. But it’s a beautiful downer, a perceptive and acute one, whose empathy distinguishes it from some of its peers. For instance: AMC’s upcoming murder drama, Low Winter Sun (Aug. 11), set in Detroit and adapted from another overseas series, shows how quickly the grim, somber cable crime series has drifted to cliché: it’s intelligent but also stark, humorless, and cold, all blood and no heart.

Broadchurch (which Fox has already planned an American adaption of) isn’t melodramatic–if anything, it has a stylized, moody, sea-breeze chill–but it leaves its heart exposed all the same. It probably benefits from the fact that it doesn’t have to play out its mystery for 13 or 22 episodes–or beyond, to another season. But what’s great about Broadchurch is not that, in the end, it lets you know everything. It’s that it makes you feel everything.

5 comments
Kels
Kels

This series was amazing. It had me right from the beginning and the emotion it drew out in me, done by the suberb acting and portrayal of a families life after tragedy was amazing. Every episode had a cliffhanger, and there was not a moment when I was bored. I hope the american version they are making can stand up to it

2muchtv
2muchtv

I cannot understand how Broadchurch could deserve anything less than 5 stars .  I'm fairly sure I would not like a Fox version of this show, but I ache to see a sequel with the  same main characters.  I loved them so much and would pay to see them work together and find happiness after all they have been through.

okayfine
okayfine

Contrary to the writer, I was looking forward to it, which is always dangerous because anticipation leads to disappointment. And I WAS a tad disappointed, but it didn't stop me from becoming engrossed. I wouldn't dream of missing an episode. After the episode that aired on the 11th, I figured out whodunnit (no spoilers here - fear not), did some reading & discovered I was correct, but that didn't stop me from watching & enjoying very much. I look forward to watching the revelation & the fallout.

Lmans
Lmans

Your comment that Broadchurch probably benefits from the "fact that it doesn’t have to play out its mystery for 13 or 22 episodes–or beyond, to another season" strikes me as interesting.  I know that I for one decided that I wouldn't be watching Under the Dome once I knew it had been renewed as an ongoing series because it wasn't a concept that I felt I could enjoy in a dragged out format. I kept an eye on the reviews in case I was wrong and the quality merited its viewing but it looks like I've been proved right on this one (though full disclosure I also avoided the start of Lost for the same reason and had to go back and binge watch the first season after stumbling across your column James and realising what I was missing).

From the TCA coverage is seems that some networks (NBC in particular jumps to mind but I could be wrong) are considering jumping back into the miniseries business. Do you think that this might be the way for networks to get back into the quality drama business that has been so overtaken by cable in recent years and that might bring back viewers like myself that enjoy a story that we know will actually have a conclusion? It appears to be a model that works quite successfully in the UK.

brer
brer

@Lmans I don't know why the networks haven't done this before. I don't know why viewers haven't insisted. Some of the best BBC mysteries and dramas have only 5-8 episodes a year. They are brilliant and so enjoyable. It has been SO disappointing over the years to get invested in a show and find it's been cancelled. It makes a person very skittish about starting anything. AND, when they stop the show in the middle without resolving anything, it's SO unsatisfying and frustrating. I hope you are right, Lmans, about the direction they might be going.