Broadchurch debuts tonight on BBC America at 10 p.m. EDT.
The opening hour of Broadchurch, the latest British crime drama import, features precious little of the murder investigation that will take up the rest of the eight-episode season. Instead, this episode focuses tightly on the raw emotions unleashed by the murder of an 11-year-old boy. In sometimes agonizing detail, the episode follows the Latimer family through the worst day of their lives, as they only slowly realize their son Danny didn’t simply leave for school before everyone else woke up. Danny’s mother has barely realized he is missing before the police arrive at the crime scene, and then it becomes a matter of waiting for the story to get to all the incomprehensibly painful conversations and realizations that lie ahead. While the show does not gratuitously wallow in the family’s grief, it takes care to convey the different ways in which Danny’s parents, sister, and grandmother feel his loss, with each passing moment holding a potential new reminder of Danny’s death. This series première works hard to remind its audience of the emotional toll of murder, something that can be easy to forget considering the sheer number of fictitious murders that occur on any given week of television. This can be a difficult episode to watch, and it’s not necessarily representative of what the season as a whole is about, but it’s essential to setting up the emotional stakes that underpin Broadchurch.
The show takes its name from its setting, a fictional seaside town on the Dorset coast, located in the southwest of England. It’s the sort of place where everybody knows each other, and it’s virtually impossible to keep secrets for any length of time. A theme that pervades tonight’s episode is that the town of Broadchurch is just too small for a murder to occur there. That’s not to suggest murder is impossible in small, close-knit communities—although that’s certainly a point the shocked townspeople make on more than one occasion—but rather that Broadchurch isn’t big enough to allow the distance required for a successful investigation. One of the two police officers assigned to the investigation is Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller—played by Olivia Colman of Peep Show and Hot Fuzz fame—whose son was best friends with the murdered boy. She’s also the aunt of local journalist Olly Stevens, who is all too willing to abuse his local knowledge and familial connection with the police in an effort to break the big story and further his career.
More fundamentally, Ellie has real trouble treating everyone she has ever known—including the Latimers themselves—as potential suspects. Broadchurch explores in some detail whether a detective can hope to investigate a community while remaining part of that community; it’s an open question whether Ellie has the necessary distance to be objective about the events unfolding around her. Her initial reaction to the sight of Danny’s death isn’t simply that of a police officer at her first murder scene; she drops any professional façade and briefly breaks down as any person might when confronted with the corpse of a family friend. Her new boss orders her to switch off her personal side, which she angrily responds is impossible; that moment establishes where Ellie begins as a character, though it only hints at where she might go over the course of the investigation. The show never explicitly asks whether it’s a conflict of interest for Ellie to investigate the death of her son’s best friend, but then a coastal town like Broadchurch probably doesn’t have an inexhaustible supply of homicide detectives to choose from. For her part, Ellie tries to look upon her own intimate involvement with the case as a positive. She believes the clinical detachment of a big-city detective just wouldn’t work in an insular community where everybody knows and constantly talks to each other, but there’s substantial disagreement on that point.
That opposing view comes from her boss and the head of the investigation, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, whose Scottish accent immediately marks him as an interloper in the town. The temptation is to call Hardy’s behavior self-destructive, but that isn’t quite right. When the series open, the man has already been destroyed, and he’s not so much interested in rebuilding a shattered life as he is just playing out the string. Indeed, as his police chief indicates in a dockside conversation over ice cream, the reason he took the Broadchurch job in the first place was because he needed somewhere quiet where he could lie low for the rest of his career. The reasons why he is in such a bad way are only hinted at in the opener, but it’s strongly implied that something went badly wrong in one of his prior investigations. Still, while the precise circumstances are no doubt relevant to the overall story, they are not absolutely necessary to understanding Hardy’s basic character arc; much like with his partner Ellie Miller, that is communicated quite well by his initial walk across the beach to the crime scene. His visible anguish, his heavy breathing, and his pained, futile prayer that this isn’t really happening all suggest a man whose body and soul are barely up to the task at hand.
The role is the latest series lead for former Doctor Who star David Tennant, and in some respects Alec Hardy is even more of an alien than the Doctor. Tennant plays the detective as someone utterly convinced he knows what is best, even as he finds himself repeatedly baffled by the community he must now investigate. He is a righteous avenger who long ago compromised himself in ways he refuses to discuss, and he lacks the charisma or the magnetism to paper over the substantial faults. Outside of the narrow context of the police investigation, he is excruciatingly awkward; on multiple occasions throughout the season, he shows an almost otherworldly inability to deal with something as straightforward as people’s first names. Tennant is superb in the role, never making Alec a larger-than-life personality. Instead, Tennant turns all of Hardy’s dysfunctions inward, and the result is a character that remains resolutely ambiguous to the audience. Just as it’s not always clear whether Ellie is really qualified to investigate a murder—something Hardy certainly has his doubts about—it’s equally uncertain whether Hardy is a tortured hero or just someone whose personal failings long since ate him alive, making him more of a hindrance than a help to the investigation.
Broadchurch draws considerable strength from its entire ensemble, although most aren’t heavily featured in this opening episode; indeed, some key players only speak during one bravura sequence, in which Danny Latimer’s father Mark greets over a dozen townspeople over the course of a single moving shot. Olivia Colman is perfectly cast as Ellie Miller, supplementing her usual sweetness and straightforwardness with sorrow, even rage. Attack The Block star Jodie Whittaker has a tricky task as Danny’s mother Beth, as she has to convey unimaginable grief without descending into full-blown miserablism; like Colman, Whittaker brings a subtle strength to the character, one often informed by an entirely understandable anger with the tragedy unfolding around her. Indeed, that more or less encapsulates why Broadchurch is so effective. This is grim subject matter, and the show doesn’t often pull back from its essential sadness, but this is also a show about people who are determined to fight back. The question to be answered over the coming weeks is whether they know who or what to fight against—and whether everyone involved can survive such an ordeal.
- We’re adding Broadchurch to the weekly rotation. I’ll be turning things over to Gwen Ihnat for the rest of the run.
- One familiar face who barely figures in this episode is former Doctor Who companion Arthur Darvill, who plays local vicar Paul Coates. He’s very good in the role—although considering Rory is one of my favorite companions, I would say that—but he only has a single line in that grand establishing scene.
- To prepare for this review, I watched the entire series. Since this show sets up so many mysteries, I’ve tried to avoid giving away any clues, however oblique, about what lies ahead. All I will say is, for those who have been burned by long-form murder mystery shows in the past (not that I’m thinking of anything in particular), Broadchurch is worth watching through to the end of the season.