For whatever reason, British series often have trouble traveling to America unscathed: The sexy, savvy London comedy Coupling became a travesty that only lasted four episodes in the U.S., even though it used the similar scripts and camera angles. The first episode of the American Office, which was another version of the British pilot, was shockingly ineffective: Fortunately the series rebounded quickly with its second episode “Diversity Day,” written by one of the new series’ producers and stars, B.J. Novak. Other British transport success rates ranged from Worst Week, which at least lasted longer than Coupling, and Football Wives, which didn’t even make it past the pilot.
Using British series as a base for American ones was more effective in the ’70s, when Man About The House became Three’s Company, Steptoe And Son transformed into Sanford And Son, and Till Death Us Do Part translated into All In The Family. A few more recent efforts have also made the jump (House Of Cards, Shameless). But the latest series to stumble in its hurdle across the pond is Broadchurch’s transition to Gracepoint. Basically a shot-for-shot remake of the British series’ pilot, the first episode of Gracepoint (and apparently, several episodes to follow), leave the viewer perplexed as to what exactly the point of this version is.
Myles McNutt points to the unsurprising reason for this remade effort in his valuable exploration of the series overall: “When it comes down to brass tacks, the reasons to remake the series are purely financial: Changing the setting to the United States expands Gracepoint’s potential audience.” Since Broadchurch, an eight-episode British mystery series that searched for the murderer of a young boy in a small seaside town, was pretty much a rousing critical success on all sides (I reviewed it for this website, and loved it), showrunners Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein must have reasoned, why fix what’s not broken? Why not just tell the same tale over here?
The problem, of course, is what made Broadchurch work are those intangible elements that Gracepoint is lacking. That cozy yet gloomy seaside town could only exist in England; the sunny Northern California town that takes its place (actually, the sunny British Columbia town sitting in for the sunny Northern California town) lacks the overall moroseness that Broadchurch stewed in. Although the whale tail is a nice touch; it’s not only atmospheric but a nod to the white whale we’ll all be searching for this series: The killer of 12-year-old Danny Latimer.
Another intangible—chemistry—wanes throughout the cast: The parents of the murdered boy barely seem connected, and Anna Gunn and David Tennant could be on separate shows. Gunn is fresh off her Emmy-winning role on Breaking Bad, and it will be interesting to see how she eventually inhabits Ellie Miller. She gets a nice moment in this episode when she beats up her locker, then stops momentarily to greet a colleague, and has an affecting scene with her son Tom. Tennant is the head of Gracepoint, but Gunn will be the heart: We need to see how devastated she is by this evil act invading her town; we still need to get introduced to everyone through her eyes.
David Tennant reprises the role he played in the original (although with a new name, Emmett Carver), and it’s hard to figure what his motivation would be to revisit this character in a different setting: Not having to learn new lines? Trying out his American accent? (Which is actually quite good.) But again, while his weak, coughing detective fit right into Broadchurch, here Tennant appears to have had a few meals and filled out some: Instead of his frailness, which previously made him a more sympathetic character, now he’s testy for no apparent reason except for this Rosemont situation. He’s gone from mysteriously tortured to snotty. And his sparring with his partner, which before at least had some traces of warmth to it as Ellie tried to draw him out, reads as annoying bickering between the two.
Some Gracepoint characters, however, inhabit their roles just fine: the prickly newspaper editor, Kathy, as well as Owen, her too-earnest young charge (loved their dual apology to Carver in the hotel); and the current version of Nick Nolte is a perfect fit for the creepy kayak guy. One cast member actually improves upon the original: Tom (Jack Irvine) unsettlingly transforms from adorable grieving moppet to diabolically sneaky tyke in a nanosecond.
And Gracepoint still contains moments and shots that would be effective in any country: the mournful lunchbox left on the counter; the franticness of trying to track a child down during Field Days; the sinking realization of the mother when she hears there’s a body down on the beach; the horror of the family when they learn their loved one’s death wasn’t an accident.
But what this first episode needed to do was to draw the viewer in completely, to be both charmed and perplexed by this seaside town, to ponder which of these new intriguing characters we just met could possibly be Danny’s killer. And who might be next? In this effort, the lack of mystery, and chemistry, causes Gracepoint to fall short. In the roll call at the end of the episode as our characters watch Carver’s press announcement, it barely registers who some of them are (barely on the radar: Ellie’s husband and Gemma, the hotel owner).
It would have been nice if the showrunners had just used Broadchurch as a base to build off of, creating their own American version, which would have made Gracepoint its own show, instead of a lesser imitation of a British one. But they promise that Gracepoint will depart from its predecessor about halfway through its ten-episode series—with presumably a different murderer, otherwise there wouldn’t be much point in watching. The mystery and drama of this kind of series lies in the fact that everyone is a potential killer, which means that everyone’s at risk. What if that gas-station attendant over there was pushed beyond his limits? What if our cocktail waitress was defending herself from an attack? How far could any of us go when we’re faced with something far beyond our comfort zone? The beauty of Broadchurch was that the show made it believable that any one could be a killer, for a variety of different reasons (and, frankly, no shortage of red herrings). So far Gracepoint is too far into its comfort zone: We need that sense of menace, of risk, of danger. Let’s hope some show of these elements show up next week.
- I will be watching this show on a week-by-week basis (despite screeners), so I will be as in the dark about Gracepoint’s possible future twists and turns as everyone else. But I am really looking forward to the show’s shakeups from its original format.
- They Might Be Giants drummer Marty Beller is providing the creepy, slightly heavy-handed score.
- The father’s request to see the body is totally plausible, and leads to a nice, tear-provoking scene for Michael Peña when he apologizes to his son for not protecting him.
- Also effective: The breakdown of the actual forensic police work that would be involved in such a case: Detective Carver’s donning of gloves and booties to enter Danny’s room, filled with sports medals, photos, and unfinished crossword puzzles.
- Hey kid, if you put your brother’s stuffed animal at the crime site in full view of people, you may be hinting to everyone who the victim is.
- Please don’t overdo the slow-mo thing, show.