Before we go any further, I recommend that you back away from the computer, find your remote control, and set your DVR to record the U.S. premiere of the hit British series Broadchurch on BBC America Wednesday night.
Scratch that. Set your DVR to record every episode. You won’t be able to watch just one.
Broadchurch isn’t a perfect TV show, but what it does well it does so well that its flaws seem trifling in comparison. In certain respects it’s as effective, and as affecting, as The Finest Television of Our Time: The Wire, The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, Mad Men. It is easily the best new drama I’ve seen in 2013.
The premise of Broadchurch is unabashedly cliché. One morning an 11-year-old boy named Danny Latimer is found dead on the sand below the cliffs of Broadchurch, a modest village on the Jurassic Coast of southern England. Blue sky. Green pastures. Tawny bluffs. The authorities rule out suicide; Danny appears to have been strangled. And so begins the search for his killer, which is led by a predictably mismatched pair of detectives. The boss, Alec Hardy (David Tennant), is a hard-boiled, ill-at-ease outsider; his partner is Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), the empathetic Broadchurcher who wanted Hardy’s gig but was passed over at the eleventh hour.
Murder doesn’t happen here, the locals say. Not in Broadchurch. Yet dark secrets are soon uncovered. Suspicion spreads. Innocents become suspects. New suspects emerge. Plotwise, it’s like Twin Peaks without the dwarf, or The Killing with fish and chips.
So far most of the American commentary about Broadchurch (which FOX is now planning to remake) has centered on the show’s crackling whodunit narrative. The focus is not unfair: as with any crime procedural, Broadchurch’s twisting, turning murder investigation is the engine that propels the series forward and leaves viewers ravenous for next week’s episode. It is the addictive agent—the narrative nicotine.
And addictive it is. Creator Chris Chibnall (Doctor Who, Torchwood) is a canny storyteller, doling out unsettling details about his characters so selectively, and with such a precise sense of timing, that we can’t help but play the game he wants us to play: constantly guessing the killer’s identity, and constantly getting it wrong. In the U.K., where Broadchurch originally aired on ITV in the spring, the show was a phenomenon. Viewership soared throughout the season, peaking at 10.5 million for the finale. That night, 35 percent of the nation’s television audience was watching Broadchurch. The Mirror’s TV columnist called the denouement “an event of … ball-shattering significance”: painful and momentous. The News at Ten became the News at Five After Ten to accommodate it.
The true power of Broadchurch, however, is not in its skillful plotting—plenty of crime dramas are nail-biters—but rather in the devastating way that Chibnall fleshes out such a familiar skeleton with the musculature of a much deeper story. If Broadchurch is really about anything, it’s about how relationships—between family and community, individual and group, our public and private selves—are formed and transformed by unforeseen events.
In one of the show’s opening shots, Danny’s father, Mark (a tormented Andrew Buchan), strolls happily down Broadchurch’s High Street before learning of his son’s death, exchanging pleasantries with his smiling neighbors: a hotel proprietor, a news agent, a reporter, his plumbing partner, and so on. Filmed in a single extended take, it is the social network as tracking shot. Soon, unsettled by murder, each of these bonds will mutate; each will become something strange and potentially menacing.
Every murder-mystery writer is interested in the stone that disturbs the placid surface of things. What makes Broadchurch so transcendent is that Chibnall is just as interested in the ripples that radiate outward from that deadly splash—and willing to take his time and follow wherever they might lead. How does a journalist balance personal sympathy and professional ambition while reporting on a murder? How does a detective investigate the friends and neighbors she loves? How does a false accusation weigh on an innocent man? How does violent crime affect the shopkeepers who rely on tourists for a livelihood? How does a vicar provide solace without preaching? How does a teenager deal with being “the dead boy’s sister”? All seamlessly addressed—not as extrinsic concerns but as inevitable elements of the larger story.
As a result, Broadchurch gradually develops into one of the most intimate and agonizing portrayals of grief I’ve ever encountered, on screen or off. The way a father compartmentalizes it. The way a mother can’t. The way it paralyzes a family and makes everything else—any activity other than grieving—seem obscene. “I used to think grief was internal,” one character tells another. “But it’s not. It’s an external thing. Like a shadow. You can’t escape it. You just have to live with it. And it doesn’t get any smaller. You just kind of accept that it’s there.” I am a grown man. The finale had me weeping.
Again, Broadchurch isn’t flawless. Chibnall overdoes it with the ominous slow-motion shots. And the use of reverberating metallic sound effects to imbue every other moment with sinister portent gets tedious after awhile. Two subplots—one about the town turning on a suspect; another about a mother betraying her son—don’t quite ring true. But the vivid cast—led by the brilliant Tennant, an ornery, unshaven whippet of a man, and the equally brilliant Colman, whose wide features are beacons of emotion—so convincingly captures Chibnall’s compassionate vision of a community torn apart by loss that it seems churlish to complain.
Throughout, the investigation churns on, tugging us along with it. Keeping us hooked. We want to catch the killer, and in the end, we do. But even in its final moments Broadchurch continues to dig a little deeper than its genre requires. We discover who throttled Danny Latimer. Yet we still don’t quite understand why. “People are unknowable,” Hardy mutters—his last lesson for Miller. “You can never really know what was in someone’s heart.”
Catching a killer is easy compared to that, he seems to be saying. In Broadchurch, as in life, some mysteries must remain unsolved.