After reading PopMatters columnist India Ross’ essay on the limitations of British television, Auntie Beeb, and British television viewers like me, (“Lessons British TV Needs to Learn from US TV”), I wonder if my enjoyment of Broadchurch, made for rival ITV and currently airing on BBC America, is a function of low expectations.
I admit to a persistent lack of ‘edge’ in my viewing habits, Homeland’s cool, but Miss Marple and The Hour feature prominently as Mad Men or The Wire. I love Prime Suspect, as part of a spectrum of police procedurals in all grades of lunacy.
I avoided Broadchurch when first shown, since my appetite for plot holes and melodrama has limits: do we need more misogynistic murder-porn to keep young women afraid to go out after dark, or to subject the mothers of angelic children to a sadistic guilt-trip? On paper, Broadchurch does little to confound expectations; the killing of a boy rocks a quiet coastal town, making its residents question their assumptions about each other, though with greater restraint than the typical ITV potboiler. It features not one, but several members of the Drama Club, including Olivia Colman and David Tennant. They play chalk-and-cheese coppers charged with solving the crime, which adds to the general air of ‘seen it all before’.
Still, (and I imagine Ross allowing herself an eye-roll, here) reducing Broadchurch to its clichés does it a disservice. The opening episode moves from the recurring shot of a boy standing on a cliff edge alone at night, to a sunny high street. In the first moments of the tracking walk-and-talk scene, we’re given a handy primer to the town and everyone in it, as we follow Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan) on his way to work, unaware that his son is missing.
Naturally, most hide sordid or sad secrets, but the first episode is concerned with the discovery of Danny Latimer’s murder. Broadchurch tempers its familiarity somewhat by making its child characters as individual as the adults, rather than paper cherubs without personality.
In later episodes, it criticizes sensational reporting of crimes involving children, but also shows the pressure put upon journalists to churn out copy. There’s a novelty here, too, in placing members of the press inside the community as individuals, rather than the usual faceless external force represented by baying photographers.
If ever a Megan Fox film should be relevant to a British drama, it’s here: the catchy term ‘tragedy boner’ heard in Jennifer’s Body too-aptly describes the prurient interest the family attracts. Danny Latimer’s mother Beth (Jodie Whittaker) is described by an enterprising journo as the ‘English rose’, whose grief sells more papers. The press is also at least in part responsible for the persecution of another Broadchurch resident, which leads to further tragedy.
One of the drama’s most overt dalliances with cliché for fans of the genre (and the resultant lunatic ‘white trash babies’) is Tennant’s character, DI Alec Hardy. He’s an outsider brought in to much resentment, tormented by a prior case that saw him demonized in public.
His character inhabits a miasma of misery particular to crime drama: his aversion to shaving, his perpetual pained expression and rumpled clothes neon-subtle signifiers of loneliness. Hardy comes to the end of an ignominious career without a relationship, a social life or even a hobby to fill the void. Hardy’s attempt to find companionship as the Latimer case draws to a close is excruciating: the object of his interest feels only pity, not lust.
He’s saved from being unbearable by interaction with DS Ellie Miller, whose determined cheer undercuts his dour intensity, and whose community links make her professional suspicions difficult. A gender swap would be preferable; it’s disheartening to consider that a female Hardy is still rare, and the British television landscape remains cluttered with lone-wolf males. It’s at least a little telling that gleefully silly parody of the genre A Touch of Cloth features Drama Club members dialing up the brooding to the point of derangement isn’t that far off the real thing.
Miller can’t quite contain her rage when she learns the job promised to her is given to a man, still less this man. Broadchurch’s few moments of humour stem from her begrudging niceness meeting Hardy’s social tone-deafness. By recompense, Hardy’s terrible personal life isn’t the flipside of an extraordinary genius and Miller’s warm family life isn’t all it seems.
Broadchurch’s other characters, like the troubled local vicar, the slightly too-intense psychic and the sinister dog walker who manage to insinuate themselves into the investigation, fare rather better, even if the sexy Australian blonde who runs a local hotel could have been played with a little less exoticism. The development of unlikely relationships between them makes the careful pacing welcome. The outcome proves a genuine surprise, even if the motive doesn’t. The aftermath of the murderer’s unmasking and the almost banal way it happens is as wrenching for the viewer as much as for the characters.
Though the scene in which Mark confronts the killer requires an almost unforgivable suspension of disbelief, Broadchurch truthfully explores the stretches of inactivity, helplessness and even boredom that are features of grief.
Broadchurch is also distinguished by its direction and soundtrack. They lend the drama a melancholic feel, even as it lingers on the tourist traps of dappled water and cloudless sky. The perpetual sense of small failures and soured good intentions is set in long silences and taut, quiet exchanges. It’s heavily influenced by Scandinavian crime dramas such as Wallander , The Killing and The Bridge – right down to the haunting indie loveliness of the opening theme music. Unlike those dramas, however, Broadchurch has a smaller scope; it has no time for exploring wider societal ills. Though afflicted by patchy West Country accents and cop show tropes, Broadchurch is self-aware enough to make its clichés work for it.
The DVD, whose extras are basic, includes a ‘behind the scenes’ feature which details producer and series creator Chris Chibnall’s processes in creating ‘more than a crime drama’.