Recently BBC America aired the 8-part mystery Broadchurch, originally presented in England by ITV, an independent competitor of the BBC. Rather than wait a week between episodes I DVRed the series so I could watch it back to back. It rewarded me by being one of the best mysteries I’ve seen on television, with the complexity and characterization that you usually find in a novel. That it was an original story made it all the sweeter.
Normally with episodic TV in the US, you have the mystery wrapped up in 43 minutes. They’re short stories on the screen. Occasionally a mystery series will have an arc that lasts for more than one episode but it’s usually related to one of the main characters while they still go about their solving mysteries each week.
There have been attempts at a full season mystery. While more in the thriller genre, 24 was a season-length story arc. Some seasons were very good – Day 2 and Day 4 in particular – while at other times it felt like the writers ran out of steam on one plot and switched ideas in mid-season. The Killing on AMC was supposed to be a one-season story, but they cheated the audience by not sticking to that plan and trying to stretch it to two. It also didn’t help that you felt like you had to wring out your clothes after each episode because of all the rain.
England has never followed the American style of 22-24 episodes in a year. Their seasons were usually 10 to 12 episodes, as every Doctor Who fan knows. HBO and Showtime picked up that format with their original series, and AMC followed their lead. It means the stories are more concentrated, and it’s definitely working well for them.
Broadchurch shows just how effective it can be to focus a show as a stand-alone program that just runs one season.
A short introduction for those who haven’t seen the series yet: The first image we see is of a boy standing on the edge of the cliffs, blood dripping from a wound on his hand. The camera pans in an arc until its hanging over him as he looks down at the beach far below him.
The next day, the inhabitants of Broadchurch go about their business. In the Latimer house, Beth (Jodie Whittaker) gets her teenaged daughter Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont) ready for school and her plumber husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) ready for work. She believes her 12-year-old son Danny has already left to do his paper route before heading for school, but then she finds his lunch pack still on the counter. When Mark leaves to meet his assistant, the camera follows him as he strolls down the town’s High Street (Main Street in US terminology) and greets many of the residents. It’s a shot worthy of Hitchcock or Orson Welles but without the overindulgence of Brian DePalma. In the course of a few minutes, we’re given the setting and introduced to most of the characters – or, to be exact, the suspects.
One person Mark greets as he passes is Detective Sergeant (D.S.) Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) who’s out with her husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle), her 12-year-old son Tom (Adam Wilson), and her infant child. The Millers have just returned from holiday, and Ellie enters the police station believing she’s to be promoted to Detective Inspector. Instead she’s told by the Chief Superintendent that while she was gone the job was given to an outsider, Alec Hardy (David Tennant).
Hardy is out early that morning on a vandalism report at a farm down the coast. He’s then called to the beach with a report that a body has been found. When Miller joins Hardy at the scene, she recognizes the victim immediately as Danny Latimer.
There are no shortage of suspects, among them the local newsagent (David Bradley), the parish priest (Arthur Darvill), Mark’s assistant (Joe Sims), and the odd woman who lives by the coast (Susan Wright). And why is Miller’s son Tom, who was Danny’s best friend, deleting emails they exchanged?
Tennant is wonderful as Hardy, who’s haunted by a previous case and hiding secrets of his own. Coleman is the viewer’s surrogate, struggling to maintain her relationships with the townspeople even as the case turns her cynical. Arthur Darvill is known to US audiences mostly for playing sweet, bumbling Rory on the past three seasons of Doctor Who, but his role here as Rev. Paul Coates is a polar opposite. David Bradley played the Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch through the entire Harry Potter series. In Broadchurch, his role as newsagent Jack Marshall is an ultimately tragic character. The emotional center of the story, though, is Jodie Whittaker. The first episode is compelling as she searches for her son, Danny, with a growing sense of doom, and when she discovers her son’s body the grief is palpable.
The series was written by created by Chris Chibnall, who also wrote all but one of the episodes and was an executive producer. Chibnall had worked on both Doctor Who and Torchwood as well as the Law & Order: UK spinoff. The one episode Chibnall didn’t write (Episode 6) was penned by Louise Fox, who’d mostly written for Australian TV. James Strong and Euros Lyn were the directors of the series – Strong did 5 episodes while Lyn did 3. Both of them had worked with Tennant on Doctor Who. They often use off-kilter medium shots which effectively changes the audience’s perception of a scene.
The series was filmed with only a couple of the actors actually knowing the killer’s identity. When it was aired, it became a sensation in the U.K., breaking records with the number of tweets on Twitter about the series and garnering over 10 million viewers for its finale.
Chibnall intended it to be a single series, even though a second series has been announced in the U.K. Fox TV is planning to do a US version of the show for its 2014-2015 season. That can sometimes be bad news, but there’s hope the US version will maintain the quality of the original. For starters, they’re bringing in Chibnall to do the adaptation, and it was recently announced that Tennant would again star as the lead detective. I hope it will find a strong audience in the US, just as it did in Britain.