'Broadchurch' Season 2: TV Review

BBC America
Olivia Colman and David Tennant are back in season two of "Broadchurch" on BBC America.
Familiar favorites are back and strong new characters emerge 

Familiar favorites are back and strong new characters emerge as "Broadchurch" tries to match the brilliance of its first season

One of the many burdens of greatness is that repeating it is almost impossible. That's because the elements surrounding that success are now known quantities and expectations built around surprise, execution, artistic detours and the like are all magnified.

That should be kept in mind as the second season of the brilliant Broadchurch series returns — essentially a product of demand by fans (and critics), because the original was a closed-ended miniseries.

And that's squarely where the difficulty in a second slice of brilliance lies for creator and writer Chris Chibnall. How do you take the remains of the original, with the killer in jail and the two leading detectives having their lives virtually shattered, and piece it back together to create something that could rival the original?

Well, either you don't try at all, or you set worry and expectations aside and get on with it, which is what Chibnall has done as the second season kicks off on Wednesday on BBC America.

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Having seen the first four episodes, it's certainly a different Broadchurch, and one that seems less than the original (expectedly), but in fairness, another batch of episodes remain, which could turn this series in numerous directions (you'll understand if you've seen the first season). I will say this about impressions at the halfway point in comparison to the original: I'm happy that Chibnall took on the challenge, because in this world you make original content or you knock it off, like Fox's abysmal Gracepoint adaptation. And Chibnall is an excellent writer who has proved more than enough in the original to be given whatever chance he wants to take.

In this second installment, Broadchurch moves from a crime investigation to a trial, and that alone is a weaker conceit. However, to keep the original's red-herring heavy spin on what's the truth and what's not, Chibnall has deftly brought in the past Sandbrook case, which haunted Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) so much in season one, and allows it to play out as the B-storyline in season two.

But the main return is the collective grief of a small town, still reeling from the death of 11-year-old Danny Latimer in the original. Chibnall's keen sense of secrets and lies and their often damaging fallout was a central element in Broadchurch, as was the lovely seaside setting (which, in the first series, was used to hammer home the notion that people run as far away from their pasts as they can, which in this case brought them to Broadchurch and into contact with the local community, rife with its own hidden issues).

Emotions are ignited immediately in the second season when confessed killer Joe Miller (Matthew Gravelle) abruptly — and without telling his legal counsel — changes his plea to not guilty. Now all of Broadchurch, which was seeking closure, feels the old wound being torn off.

The plea switch is especially gutting news to his wife, Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), who has left Broadchurch and is an unhappy traffic cop in nearby Devon; her son, Tom (Adam Wilson), refuses to live with her and is staying with relatives. Ellie had hoped that the conviction of her husband would at least close that chapter of her life.

And the Latimers are equally knocked asunder by the reversal. Beth (Jodie Whittaker) and Mark (Andrew Buchan) are expecting a baby any day, and formerly rebellious daughter Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont) has grown closer as they've tried to recover.

By hinging the second season on a court case, Chibnall has to put the focus on two new characters, the attorneys (or in this case, "the Queen's Counsel"), but does a phenomenal job by casting Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Sharon Bishop, who will represent Joe Miller, and Charlotte Rampling as Jocelyn Knight, representing the prosecution. (And yes, chess fans, that's Knight vs. Bishop.)

Chibnall has come under fire (and on Wednesday defended himself and the series in The Guardian) for how the courtroom action plays out. He chose to go the emotional route — since that's really the core of the story in Broadchurch — and in the process drastically compacts the interaction in the courtroom which can admittedly be frustrating in the early going as Queen's Counsel Bishop makes wild allegations trying to undermine the case.

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Chibnall stood behind the decision and the validity and realism of the legal maneuverings, stating legal advisors backed every move. That, too, is something to keep in mind as you watch, since the courtroom scenes are the weakest.

However, not enough can be said about how fantastic both Jean-Baptiste and Rampling, two wonderful actresses, are in their respective roles.

Of course, most viewers who loved Broadchurch will return not only because it's almost impossible not to after such a magnetic and compelling first season, but also because Tennant and Colman were the linchpins of that season and their work together was so memorable (and also maybe to see Tennant, who reprised his role in the woeful American remake, get his accent back).

It feels good to get back to the seaside of Broadchurch and, in a strange way, burrow back into the dark and sad secrets still hiding there. Joe Miller's plea reversal is bound to unearth them. And the town and people have also changed since Danny was murdered — their new lives on display, for better and worse.

Mostly it's great to see Tennant and Colman try to put back the pieces of the wrecked lives of Hardy and Miller. Sure, it might have been more ideal for Chibnall to leave everything be, to keep the Broadchurch legacy untouched. That's one way to look at it. Comparisons to greatness are never very flattering — but neither is choosing to avoid telling more of the story when you clearly have the talent to do so.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine