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.