A great long-form murder mystery is hard to pull off in the 21st century, because audiences have gotten more cynical and are quicker at putting the pieces together. With entire message boards devoted to theories and speculation as a series like Broadchurch progresses, the “big reveal” at the end will always run the risk of underwhelming (if there even IS a reveal, as The Killing learned to its peril) — but Broadchurch skirts that issue, and does so brilliantly.
In this, the darkest of times, we have to be better. If we are not a community of neighbors, we are nothing.
This series wrecked me. Let me explain.
Creator Chris Chibnall (Doctor Who) didn’t just want to make a “who-dun-it.” What he has done here, in eight knife-edged hours, is tell the story of the aftermath — the wreckage of people’s lives and how they cope with loss. The investigation is important, but it often takes a back seat to the inner lives of these incredibly rich characters. As a family grieves, the murder of young Danny Latimer brings a media circus, and the town isn’t equipped to deal with the attention. And through it all, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Sgt. Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) work tirelessly to uncover the truth, knowing that is causing Broadchurch to slowly rip itself apart.
Chibnall spent over a decade on the Dorset coast, and he is extremely effective in capturing even the smallest details of life in a sleepy seaside town like this one. The series is meditative, verging on slowly-paced in its first few episodes, but it’s all by design. We come to subconsciously understand how it feels to be in Broadchurch, the geography crystallizing in our minds, so as we hear the alibis and retrace the steps along with Hardy & Miller, we are right there with them. The editing is hypnotic, the cinematography awash in stormy greys and blues, the camerawork done with such verisimilitude that it feels incredibly real and raw. We are helpless and horrified watching it unfold, but we cannot possibly look away.
The performances are astonishing. Tennant, no longer with the buoyant spirit of The Doctor, is here a broken shell of a man — seeming to physically carry what is weighing on his psyche to the point where he could be blown over by the slightest breeze. Hardy, declining in health, has come to Broadchurch looking for refuge: he wants to finish his career in quiet after a botched murder investigation in another city, and must do his “penance” (as he calls it) by catching Danny’s killer instead. Coleman, who I’d known better as a comedic actress (Hot Fuzz), is shockingly good as Ellie, who is first resentful of Hardy for taking the job she thought was hers, but comes to grapple with her own biases and blinders in investigating people she’s known personally for years. Both give searing, brilliant performances, and are exceptionally good together.
It doesn’t stop there. With no leads, everyone is a a suspect, and everyone has secrets — even the Latimer family. The father, Mark, is a plumber who bears his own responsibility for the events of that night, and Andrew Buchan lets you feel every ounce of his guilt and grief. As the shell-shocked Beth, Jodie Whittaker is heartrendingly vulnerable, playing a devastated mother suddenly mistrustful of everyone she once called a friend. When the Latimers offer a list of suspects to Hardy, all they can think to do is write down everyone they know.
In any given episode, Hardy and Miller must interrogate a new person of interest, causing more damage to the town the longer the investigation takes: The vicar Coates (Arthur Darvill, another Doctor Who alum), who comforts the community but doesn’t have a good alibi; Mark’s employee Nigel (Joe Sims), hiding a dark streak; Ellie’s own son, Tom, whose first action upon hearing of Danny’s death is to destroy his computer; Jack Marshall (David Bradley, having a career year at 71 between this, Game of Thrones, The World’s End, and more), the elderly shop owner with a past he’s desperate to keep buried; the haughty busybody Susan (Pauline Quirke), whose interest in the case is unclear. And on and on. The journalists, some local and wanting to make a name for themselves, others from the outside looking to exploit the family’s grief. The man claiming to be a psychic. It’s a dizzying array of characters and conflicting motivations, many of them red herrings — but Chibnall keeps things so perfectly paced, and doles out information so carefully, it never becomes confusing or overwhelming.
The dialogue is deft and subtle — no subtext-as-text hysterics or revelations. It’s a moody, difficult exercise in serialized television, and it works so well that when the killer is finally caught, it’s not a cathartic moment — it’s wrenching. We’ve become so invested in the residents of Broadchurch that we just want them to be able to move on and have hope again, however impossible that might be. The final scene is so beautiful it moved me almost to tears, but nothing about this series is neat and tidy. It’s ugly and messy and bittersweet, like life. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a fun time on the couch, but I can’t recommend it highly enough.
How can the series continue, as was recently announced? I have no idea, and I’m not convinced it should. This a near-perfect eight hours of television. It’s a real work of art.