There’s a lot of television that I don’t have the time to watch, but just recently, I made time for Broadchurch. The British mystery-drama from 2013 has won tons of awards and has been critically acclaimed, touted by many as a high point in dramatic television. It’s easy to see why.
The eight episode series is emotionally gripping, combining strong writing and acting to tell the story of a high stakes mystery that shakes a small English town. The investigation spans the entire series, and is headed up by DI Alec Hardy, played by David Tennant. Hardy is new to the town, and not unexpectedly carries his own emotional baggage as he takes on this shocking and high profile case. Hardy’s partner-in-sleuthing is DS Ellie Miller, a local police officer who was disappointed when Hardy get the job she was hoping to be promoted into.
Fans of English detective stories will expect all sorts of local secrets to be unearthed as the police dig into the mystery, but what sets Broadchurch apart is the way the series crafts the characters. These people are not just suspects to fill out a mystery template, they are genuine characters whose lives are palpably shaken by terrible crime that’s been committed amongst them. We’ve never met them before, but we feel their trauma, and we are sad witnesses to the way that the suspicion, the police interviews, and media attention all conspire to tear them down as people and as a community. They are all shocked that someone amongst them could be a murderer, and as we get to know them, we share those emotions.
As I’ve stated, Broadchurch is both mystery and drama. What it isn’t, for the most part, is thriller. I’m grateful for that. A series like this could have easily been filled with one incident after another of deeply disturbed characters doing deeply disturbed things, earning it’s reputation by it’s willingness to show unflinchingly the depths of human depravity. To my pleasant relief, this wasn’t the emphasis. Instead, the series handled its serious subject matter with a delicate touch, focusing on the way that this one brutal crime traumatizes the town, and how the residents’ lives are impacted as a result. Only in the last episode does it get more harsh, as the full details behind how and why the murder takes place are fully revealed. But by then, there is a way that the series had earned this moment, after showing such restraint and emotional honesty up to that point.
The mystery story is well done, and treated honestly as well. In the middle of the penultimate installment, I had a sudden epiphany about what was happening, in which I was convinced about who the murderer was (although not why it had been committed). It turns out that I was right. But guessing the ending did not make watching it revealed any less satisfying, nor the fallout that takes place afterwards any less gripping.
The whole ensemble of actors is good, but the standout for me is Jodie Whittaker, who plays the mother of the murdered boy. In a lot of ways, she’s the star of the series, or at least of the parts of it focusing on the drama of the town. She’s really the only character who we never really think might be the murderer, and so in a way represents we the viewer as we get to know all of her family and neighbors. Whittaker is amazing as she conveys Beth’s grief, shock, anger and confusion at the terrible event that has happened.
So, as I have already stated, Broadchurch gets very high marks for me. As an added bonus, the cast is a bit of a Doctor Who-Who’s Who. Not only do you have David Tennant as DI Hardy, but also Ellie Miller is played by Olivia Colman, who played Prisoner Zero during the climactic scenes of The Eleventh Hour. Then there’s Arthur Darvill who played companion Rory Williams starting in that same episode, as the local priest. Another resident (and another suspect) – an old news agent owner – is played by David Bradley, who played William Hartnell in the recent film An Adventure in Space and Time.
Not surprisingly, Broadchurch has been renewed for a second series. It’s hard to imagine what it will be about. Another terrible crime rocks Broadchurch? This seems dramatically far-fetched, but is probably more likely than the alternatives: having the series just be about the normal going-ons of this seaside town, or else moving it from that locale entirely. Whatever the result, I’ll definitely be looking for an opportunity to check it out.