The news that the legendary Peter Capaldi has been named the new Doctor was one of two great Doctor Who-related treats this week; the other is that Broadchurch, starring David Tennant (a.k.a. the Tenth Doctor) has finally arrived on American shores. The crime drama originally aired on ITV in Britain earlier this year to great acclaim as well as frenzy regarding the mystery of who murdered a young boy in a sleepy coastal England town. The dark series (originally conceived as a one-off, but which will return with a second season next year) is engrossing and emotional, and is sure to enrapture American audiences as it did English ones. Hit the jump for more on the series, and why there is so much more to Broadchurch than just the mystery.
While some successful crime dramas like Luther trade on the vastness and anonymity of a city as large as London, the main appeal and driving force of Broadchurch is a close examination of small-town life. Like Sundance’s similarly hypnotic series Top of the Lake and Rectify, the murder splits a small town into factions, uncovering the more sinister side of what seems like an idyllic life. As more and more secrets come out over the course of the investigation, the uneasiness of the town’s hidden darkness becomes almost suffocating, yet also strangely addicting thanks to the quality of the acting and the beauty of the cinematic filming.
The setup is basic: Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (a wan David Tennant) arrives in Broadchurch hoping to outrun his scandal-tinged past. He ticks all of the boxes a TV Detective Inspector should: irascible, divorced and in ill-health. But Tennant finds a way to make him more than a cliche, so that Hardy ends up a compelling, fully-formed character, even though he’s devoid of any of Tennant’s recognizable spritely Doctor charms. Hardy immediately clashes with local detective Ellie Miller (Peep Show‘s Olivia Colman) over who will lead the investigation of the recent murder of a young local boy, a rivalry which lasts the season and showcases Colman’s incredible acting ability as she juggles the juxtapositions that hold Miller together. Miller is controlled by emotion, and her approach is the opposite of Hardy’s cold and sterile one; the murdered boy, Danny, was best friends with her son.
The show takes viewers down a number of rabbit holes, and its complexity regarding the case (and its many possibilities) are intellectually a joy for puzzle seekers — there’s even a haunting subplot that’s a commentary on corrupt, sensationalist journalism. But what makes Broadchurch so exceptional is the connection viewers feel towards the town and its inhabitants. For that reason, even though the series was conceived of as a one-off (the murder is solved by the end of the season), creator Chris Chibnall agreed to bring it back, even without a central mystery. Like FX’s The Bridge, the “whodunit?” aspect is able to drive the central plot without the show being beholden to it.
Broadchurch is a slow and reflective piece of work that is heavy on emotion, though to be fair, its languid pace is not always warranted (and occasionally, when watching on a weekly basis, infuriating). But the death of a child is always the most tragic, and as Danny’s family begins to fall apart (his parents are played brilliantly by Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan), the town’s own sense of family crumbles as well, keeping viewers at attention.
As the town comes to grips with the idea of such a heinous crime potentially committed by one of their own, they start turning on each other as everyone becomes a potential suspect (supporting actors include Doctor Who alumni Arthur Darvill, Game of Thrones‘ David Bradley, veteran British actress Pauline Quirke and more in the excellent cast). There are many false accusations and mobs formed in the name of vigilantism, and the results of these witch hunts are often just as terribly sad as the murder itself. Broadchurch does not allow anyone to go unscathed — as the truth becomes known, everyone ends up having learned and lost. But the season ends (after a mere eight episodes) with the town beginning to pick itself back up again, and in those final redemptive moments, Broadchurch solidifies itself as having produced some of the most outstanding hours of television broadcast this year.
Broadchurch premieres Wednesday, August 11th at 10 p.m. on BBC America