The serial murder mystery is an inherently tricky genre. On the one hand, it represents a tremendous opportunity to push back against the absurdity of murder-of-the-week procedurals, where crimes are solved at an impossible pace. Detective work is often frustrating and inexact, and spreading a single investigation over the course of an entire season helps delve into the ebbs and flows of solving a murder in the real world.
Yet the serial murder mystery can’t genuinely embrace the unformed uncertainty of real detective work. It still has to fit into neat, episodic boxes, structured as a series of false accusations, red herrings, and cliffhangers that keep the audience engaged. Rather than exploring new dimensions of how detectives investigate crime, shows like Gracepoint simply take the storytelling model of the crime procedural and expand it from a single episode to a single season.
Like The Killing before it, Gracepoint embodies the challenges that come with this form of storytelling. Based on ITV’s Broadchurch (seen Stateside on BBC America), the show follows the investigation into the death of Danny Solano, whose body is discovered on the beach of his small Northern California hometown. The show splits its time between the detectives investigating the murder (David Tennant as the newly arrived outsider and Anna Gunn as the local cop with ties to the case) and the Gracepoint residents (including Michael Peña and Virginia Kull as Danny’s parents) who deal with the pain of grief and not knowing who was responsible for his death. Was it his own father? His sister’s boyfriend? The local priest (Kevin Rankin)? The local youth group leader (Nick Nolte)? The suspects are multitude, to the point where Fox is all-in on Gracepoint being a “mystery event series” that will capture America’s imagination like the original captured the U.K.’s.
It’s not a bad idea, although it runs into problems in execution. The show has two primary goals at any given moment: The first is keeping the audience invested in the question of who killed Danny. The second involves fleshing out the characters, to the point that the audience is interested in their lives when the mystery starts to stall. In a perfect world, these two goals would work in tandem, but Gracepoint struggles to keep them from seeming cross-purpose to one another. When it’s leaning heavily on the murder-mystery side of the narrative—trotting out typical suspects and denoting suspense and intrigue with an oppressive musical score by In Treatment composer and They Might Be Giants drummer Marty Beller—the self-seriousness makes viewers long for a series that was more focused on the characters affected by the crime and their struggle to move on with their lives.
However, whenever the show focuses on character rather than mystery, the lack of energy cries out for another red herring to keep the series moving. None of the adult performances drag the series down, but they lack compatibility: Tennant and Gunn never exactly settle into their prickly relationship, Peña and Kull seem adrift beyond their grief, and whatever Jacki Weaver was going for with her shady trailer-park resident feels off tonally with the series’ largely realistic tone.
For a series like Gracepoint to work, there needs to be the sense that these characters—and this place—exist outside of the context of a television series chronicling a murder investigation. We need to want this “event series” to be extended to a second season, and we need to invest in who these people were before this tragic event tore the town apart. But that never happens with Gracepoint: Through seven episodes, every attempt at developing characters independent of the murder investigation feels like an overly conscious attempt to develop characters independent of the murder investigation. Early efforts to establish a sense of place—the show substitutes Vancouver Island for Northern California—seem replaced by generic-looking establishing shots as the season progresses, while initial motivations are overwritten so many times there’s no original character to return to.
Gracepoint is not a poorly made television show: There’s attractive cinematography and solid acting throughout. But the energy levels are off, as though those involved were all waiting for someone else to step up and pull the whole production out of a stupor. There are flashes of excellence—like when Nolte stops mumbling and delivers in a key moment later in the season—but in the end the series lacks anything to differentiate it from other entries in this genre.
It’s arguable that such evaluations are influenced by previous viewings and enjoyment of Broadchurch. The original version of this story is the elephant in the room—especially given that Tennant is reprising the same role with a different accent—and it’s something Fox has struggled to negotiate ever since the adaptation was announced in 2013. 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 (as it helps American viewers relate to the situation), and owning the series means Fox can sell it in international markets. But there are few creative reasons to retell an almost identical story. Gracepoint’s producers—including showrunners Dan Futterman and Anya Epstein—have stressed that this will be a distinct narrative. Given that the first six episodes of the series are nearly identical to their U.K. counterparts—and the differences in the seventh episode seem to exist only to delay the climax as eight episodes are adapted into 10—little effort seems to have been taken to explore the creative possibilities of telling this story in an American context.
But you don’t need to have seen Broadchurch to be disappointed with Gracepoint. As much as the direct comparison likely draws more attention to the series’ flaws, those flaws are present enough that even those who can’t make the comparison will sense the lack of energy behind this particular narrative. The problem is not that Broadchurch renders Gracepoint unnecessary or redundant: The original series’ critical acclaim obscures the fact that nearly no one watched it on BBC America, meaning this will undoubtedly reach a larger audience. In principle, that could be a good thing. The problem is that there is nothing about Gracepoint that makes it stand out in any way, as it ultimately only represents an inert if occasionally effective stab at event storytelling in a broadcast space.