The new (to U.S.. viewers) British crime series Broadchurch premieres tonight on BBC America at 10 EDT. “Well, should I watch?”, you ask, getting right to the point. Well, that depends on what you want. Let me explain.
The series consists of eight one hour episodes (including commercial breaks), and it stars David Tennant (Dr. Who) as an emotionally troubled police detective, Alex Hardy, who is transferred to the small coastal town of Broadchurch, a fictional village in Wessex, to investigate the murder of an eleven-year-old boy.
The body of the child, Danny Latimer, has been found on the beach, with signs of physical trauma. He has been murdered. His family has significant imperfections, rather like most families. These, however, appear much more sinister in the changed context created by the boy’s murder. The people of the town of Broadchurch, similarly, have their shortcomings as well, and the introduction of the murder of a child, with its special element of horror, brings these problems to light and begins to set them against one another.
Thus the show has the basic elements of a murder mystery, and in fact the plot is pretty much that of a standard police procedural. However, it’s also evident that writer Chris Chibnall wants to do more than present a good, solid mystery.
Many people will say “Uh-oh,” upon hearing that, and I wouldn’t blame you a bit.
Much of the screen time of each episode is spent showing the effects of the boy’s death on his family and the community. This is greatly reminiscent of the AMC series ‘The Killing and its Danish predecessor. The narrative has a slow pace, but I would describe it as deliberate, and it’s not boring. That is, it’s not boring if you’re in no hurry to find out who dun it.
Instead the show uses the murder investigation as an occasion to explore the many secrets held by the victim, his family, and the rest of the people of Broadchurch: Danny’s father’s extramarital affair, his sister’s secret boyfriend, Danny’s suspicious activities (suggested in texts and emails deleted by Danny’s best friend, Tom) which may or may not have led to his death, Tom’s real feelings toward his purported best friend Danny, news agent Jack’s prison time for being convicted of sexually assaulting a minor before moving to Broadchurch, the local plumber’s vulnerability to blackmail, the local pastor’s successful but nonetheless embarrassing battle with alcohol addiction, a local woman’s awful past and the identity of her long-lost son, DCI Hardy’s health problems and botched investigation in his immediately previous job, some of DS Ellie Miller’s personal connections to the case she is helping to investigate, and others.
The story shows a few attempts at plot devices, such as DI Miller’s dilemmas and a scene where a man purporting to be a psychic provides Danny’s mother with information about the boy’s death—but the makers’ main interest clearly is in the psychological exploration of the characters and the sociological investigation of the small coastal town.
In those regards the show is basically successful, to the extent that TV is good at such things. I tend not to be a fan of works that try to “transcend the genre,” as I don’t think that genre fiction is some inherently awful thing which has to be transcended in order for a work of quality to be produced. I think that the Sherlock Holmes stories and Perry Mason novels, for example, are just fine as is, without any pretenses at psychology and the illustration of political doctrines. However, taken on its own terms—as an effort that’s intentionally deficient in genre pleasures in pursuit of loftier accomplishments—Broadchurch makes reasonable sense.
And it does include some astute observations. There’s an interesting scene, for example, in which a character points out how awful it is that people today cannot seek affection from one another without being accused of having a sexual motive. This is a good point, and it has a bearing on events later in the series.
The series also gives a very positive depiction of Christianity. Although the local pastor has had an alcohol addiction, he is a good man who tries very diligently to do right by the people of his community and give them comfort in their times of need. Hardy is openly hostile toward him, however, and this is depicted as a problem on Hardy’s part, not a justifiable suspicion toward the clergy and the faith they represent. A confrontation in episode 6 makes this quite clear. “You can . . . belittle who I was in the past,” the Rev. Coates says, “but you do not get to belittle my faith just because you have none.”
Indeed, their previous scenes together have made it clear that Hardy is hostile to Christianity. The pastor quite laudably refrains from rebuking Hardy for his personal animus, instead pointing out a problem with Hardy’s point of view: the policeman has nothing to offer the people but suspicion. The pastor says, “People need hope right now, and they are certainly not getting it from you.” Those words are far more cutting than a personal rebuke would have been, for Hardy does want to do good.
Hardy’s answer to Rev. Coates’s observation is literally . . . nothing. Hardy stands in silence with his arms crossed as if to protect himself from this uncomfortable truth about the inadequacy of his position, the essential sadness of his life in lack of faith. Hardy is, after all, lonely, sick, and rather depressive.
Even so, Hardy is depicted as basically a good man, and the secret from his past—the botched investigation that led to his downfall and exile to Broadchurch—actually shows him as having strong character as manifested in his great concern for his daughter. Tennant does a fine job of conveying the complexities of this character, a man who isn’t particularly likable but is ultimately a decent and praiseworthy individual. In the end, in fact, Hardy handles an emotionally very difficult situation with great sensitivity, and Tennant does an admirable job of conveying his difficult choice without overdoing it.
Later, in episode 7, the pastor’s words to Danny’s grieving parent’s are very wise, and the woman’s contemplation of getting an abortion (because she can’t stop grieving for Danny and doesn’t want to love another child) ends after Coates’s advice that she go through with an ultrasound because “perhaps [God has] sent you not what you want but what you need.” The scene in which Danny’s mother and father watch the ultrasound and break into smiles is touching and an excellent depiction of the real-life phenomenon in which abortion has become a far less desirable thing since the advent of ultrasound and micro-cameras and the vastly increased knowledge about the growth of children in the womb. It is also a confirmation of Coates’s wisdom and his value to the community and the people there.
In the end (no spoilers here), we find that several of the characters’ motives are simply unknowable, their actions inexplicable. This is probably more true to life than we typically want to admit. Human beings seem to seek meaning in everything, especially in other people, but some things are simply too complex to understand, and people above all. “People are unknowable, and you can never really know what goes on inside someone else’s heart,” Hardy says.
That’s the mystery the makers of Broadchurch really wanted to explore, it’s clear, and taken on those terms it’s a success.