Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Broadchurch: ITV's Answer to The Killing

David Tennant and Olivia Colman star in Broadchurch

We are very pleased to welcome a new critic, Sean Rasmussen, to our group.

From ITV, the network that produces Downton Abbey, comes Broadchurch, an eight-part crime drama/mystery. It is set in present-day (fictitious) Broadchurch, an English seaside tourist town nestled by a dramatic cliff on the Dorset coast. In the opening episode an 11-year-old boy is found dead on the beach, under mysterious circumstances. The series follows the investigation of the boy's murder through all eight episodes.
Two detectives are on the case:  Ellie Miller, played by Olivia Coleman (Rev.), and her superior, Alec Hardy, played by David Tenant (Doctor Who). Together they follow clues and turn over rocks around town – and in doing so uncover all manner of messy secrets in people's personal lives. The picturesque seaside town has drawn residents from all over the UK who want to escape their previous failures and start something new.  But, the investigation, the suspicion of fellow townspeople and the lust for vengeance starts to unravel the promise of the community.

Following a single crime for an entire series is a growing trend that has caught on with TV audiences, particularly in the UK. This spring three notable British series took this approach: Mayday (six parts), Top of the Lake (eight parts), and Broadchurch. They have a lot of similarities: they are set in small towns and all have strong female leads. And, all of them are worth watching. Mayday and Broadchurch were ratings-successes, too, followed and talked about by millions in the UK.

Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker, as the victim's parents
On this side of the pond, the entire objective of the North American TV business seems to be the long-running show. That's where the money gets made with the existing distribution model. But it means that, with only a few exceptions, every good idea ultimately gets diluted by its own success. Even Mad Men, which had what I would consider a perfect long form story arc in its first season, is now struggling to avoid becoming a dressed-up prime time soap. It's still a cultural phenomenon, and I watch every episode, but it's not what it once was. In an interview, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner said that he wrote the first season to be a perfect, complete story arc, because he didn't know whether the show would be renewed or not.  There's a lesson there. The British short series format makes sense. Don't milk an idea to death. Tell the story, and move on.

For all the talk of how our short attention spans have become, there is currently a trend for people to hunker down with six, eight, thirteen, or even twenty episodes of a long-arc series. (Witness the recent popular success of Netflix’s House of Cards.) Cinema and episodic television can't tell this type of detailed, involved story. Whether you watch a long-arc series over eight weeks, or binge watch it in a couple of days, it’s often a very satisfying experience, more akin to getting lost in a novel than watching a movie.

Structurally, Broadchurch is a fairly standard mystery that will appeal to fans of that genre. So if that's what you like, you'll be happy. Small picturesque rural English town – check. Mysterious death – check. Broken detective with complicated back-story – check. Parasitical, career-obsessed journalists – check. What makes Broadchurch notable is in the way that it handles each of the mystery story beats.

At the emotional centre of the show are two women: Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker), the mother of the murdered boy, and Ellie Miller, the second detective on the case. Miller, played by Olivia Coleman, brings a very relatable vulnerability to what might otherwise be run-of-the-mill detective scenes, lifting them out of the formulaic. Detective Ellie Miller is a local and a mother herself, and she knows the victim and the family. In one early scene, you watch her slowly walk the length of the long beach towards where the boy's body was found. It takes a long time for her to get there. The camera stays on her face as she approaches and realizes who it is. Without any words she communicates how much suffering this is going to mean for everyone. The same kind of slow pacing is used when they notify the victim's parents. The opening scenes are, in a word, devastating

Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) and her son (Adam Wilson)

Many critics compare Broadchurch to the original Danish The Killing, which aired on BBC with subtitles (and was a bit of a phenom in the UK). Is Broadchurch the UK's answer to The Killing? Yes and no. Both shows do something similar: they take an established predictable genre and make it fresh again by tweaking a few key elements. The Killing took a crime procedural that would normally be solved in an hour of TV and stretched the investigation out to 23 episodes. Broadchurch, likewise, stays with one murder, albeit for considerably fewer episodes – but that's now commonplace. No, its main innovation is in the unique pacing of scenes and emphasis on the emotional side of its stories.

The Killing is a classic thriller – declaring its intentions right in the opening credits (“A thriller by...”). It has plenty of twists and turns to fit the genre. In order to sustain the tension for 23 episodes it was necessary to inject the plot with red herrings. Each episode has a manipulative hook or twist near the end to make you want to watch the next episode (which, by the way, I quite enjoyed). But that aspect is probably the one thing that critics pointed to as an artistic flaw of the series.

Broadchurch, on the other hand, is a mystery rather than a thriller and it doesn't overdo the plot twists. More so, the show's true aim is to explore the emotional side of death. Broadchurch’s creator/writer Chris Chibnall, most known for his work on Torchwood and Doctor Who, says that he wanted to explore, with a large ensemble cast, how death would impact a small community.  The Killing has some of that, too, of course. It developed a rich complicated story for the family of the victim. But Broadchurch is rawer, more gut-wrenching and 'real'. After watching the first episode, I started seeing other crime shows (which have the same plot points) as patently superficial and silly. The first two episodes of Broadchurch raise the bar on what you expect from a crime drama. That's no small feat.

David Bradley as local Broadchurch shopkeeper Jack Marshall
Nonetheless, the series is not perfect. Broadchurch’s portrayal of journalists comes off a bit cliché and could have been fleshed out better. Everyone loves to hate journalists! And the middle of the series can’t quite sustain the emotional intensity of the first two episodes. It settles into whodunit story beats, keeping the emotional depth at bay until the ending. Some may actually be glad they toned it down in the middle – especially parents of young children. The first two episodes are that effective. But the show would have been all the more impressive if they were able to carry all eight episodes through at that level.

The casting is excellent. Coleman will be likely be nominated and win some awards for her performance. Her main competition will probably be Whittaker, who as the victim's mother was able to make a simple underplayed scene like looking at a box of cereal (that her son used to eat) in the grocery store a beautiful thing. I'll admit it, these ladies made my cry. The men are good, too. David Tenant's gruff but likeable lead detective fits more with what people expect from a detective. If you're a fan of British television you'll probably also recognize Andrew Buchan who plays Mark Latimer, the victims' father. Many of the secondary character performances are also memorable, most notably David Bradley's portrayal of the lonely local corner store owner.

Six to eight hours is probably the sweet spot for the long-form TV mystery. And it's nice to see this format taking off. Broachurch is well worth the eight hours of your time. It works as a mystery, as a moving drama and as a reflection on death. And, if you're a regular mystery watcher, you’ll be all the better suited to appreciate what Broadchurch does with a beloved, if sometimes too familiar, genre. 

Sean Rasmussen is a Toronto-based digital communications consultant, media enthusiast, and freelance radio producer. Twitter: @Sean_Rasmussen

1 comment:

  1. Great article, Mr. Rasmussen. My Google search term was "top of the lake broadchurch", as I really enjoyed those shows; now I have a few more to watch, notably the Danish "Forbrydelsen". Thanks for your work, and I will look for your future contributions. Greetings from Maui.