My attitude toward genre fiction is that it’s best when the creator is satisfied to make genre fiction and doesn’t try to “transcend the genre.” In my experience, works that “transcend the genre” typically make a hash of the genre and substitute literary pretensions for authorial competence. The right approach, in my view, is for the author to respect the requirements of the genre while suffusing the narratives any wisdom, insight, and compassion he or she may possess. The latter, moreover, must be done naturally as the story requires, not by forcing one’s presumed brilliance upon the reader.
Those requirements are as true for television as for any other medium, and the eight-part BBC mystery series Broadchurch exemplified the tricky shoals a writer must navigate when trying to bring new power to genre works. As I noted in my review of Broadchurch last year, “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.” This approach, I noted, was directly reminiscent of the AMC series‘The Killing and its Danish predecessor, but I failed to identify an even more important precursor, the early ’90s ABC-TV series Twin Peaks, which was really the major innovator in this regard.
That connection is much more evident in Gracepoint the new ten-episode FOX-TV series (Thursday, 8 p.m.) created and produced by Broadchurch creator-writer Chris Chibnall and directed by James Strong, who directed most of Broadchurch. In its first three weeks, Gracepoint has emerged as a faithful recreation of Broadchurch, as a small U.S. town on the Pacific coast replaces the location of the original series, the fictional small coastal town of Broadchurch in Wessex.
That substitution is significant. Broadchurch was filmed largely in muted color tones, emphasizing the depressed atmosphere of the small town in the wake of the murder of an eleven-year-old boy at the center of the story. Gracepoint, by contrast, allows brighter colors and greater contrasts between light and dark than was characteristic of Broadchurch. The visual style and the location are thus reminiscent, perhaps deliberately, of Twin Peaks, which was notable for bringing gorgeous cinematic visuals to a TV genre series.
The visual style also enables Gracepoint to make a slightly more compex and nuanced impression on the viewer than Broadchurch did, which is saying a lot. In terms of plot, characters, and the like, Gracepoint follows Broadchurch quite faithfully, and if you’re interested in details regarding those elements, you would do quite well to read my review of Broadchurch from last year. Worthy of note is that the police detective in charge of the investigation, Emmett Carver, is as depressed, angry, ill-mannered, annoying, and enigmatic as DI Alex Hardy was in Broadchurch. David Tennant plays Carver as he did Hardy in the earlier series, and his American accent is quite passable.
In fact, the entire cast of Gracepoint is every bit as good as that of Broadchurch, and in the cases of woebegone Detective Annie Miller (Anna Gunn), sports rental shop owner Jack Reinhold (Nick Nolte), and murder victim Danny’s father, Mark Solano (Michael Peña), the U.S. cast is superior to the British one.
A further notable aspect of the Gracepoint so far has been the depiction of Det. Annie Miller’s marriage as a happy one and a real refuge for her from the anxieties and woes of her job. Her husband looks after their child without complaint when she is required to work long hours, yet he doesn’t convey any sense of being a milquetoast, as is so often the case when TV series show husbands taking care of children in those rare instances when the hubby is not shown as simply incompetent and uncaring. The characterization of Joe Miller (Josh Hamilton) is thus more interesting and more true to life (in my experience, anyway) than most TV depictions of American fathers.
In all, the first three episodes of Gracepoint compare quite favorably with Broadchurch, which was a highly interesting and ultimately satisfying TV series.
If you’ve missed Gracepoint thus far, you can catch up by watching the first three episodes online at the FOX-TV website, here: http://www.fox.com/watch/340320323628. In addition, FOX-TV will replay the first two episodes tonight at 8 p.m. EDT.