Tonight, prepare to be gutted by greatness.
Broadchurch, an eight-part drama on BBC America (Wednesday, 10 p.m.), is a textbook example of excellent writing, well-developed and complicated characters, superb acting, a perfect sense of place and, perhaps most important, just the right number of hours to tell a murder mystery without unnecessary padding or corner-cutting cheats.
In short, it’s the anti-Killing. But even bringing that up to show the disparity in execution does a disservice to Broadchurch, because it has been crafted in a galaxy far above what went down at AMC.
If you’re wondering if something could actually be as superb as described, the answer is yes — and probably more so. As a whole, Broadchurch is one of the best limited series to be on television in a long while.
Created and written by Chris Chibnall (Torchwood, Law & Order: UK), the story revolves around the death of an 11-year-old boy in a quiet coastal town where everybody knows everybody else — except the secrets they hide away. What Broadchurch nails so precisely at every turn is the depiction of emotional carnage. Few series will prod tears and mangle your insides like this one — and those emotions are not just produced by the painful loss of a child, but also from so many emotional vulnerabilities that Chibnall pushes so deftly.
Into the seaside town of Broadchurch comes Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant, Doctor Who, Spies of Warsaw), who is haunted and nearly broken down by a famous case that he botched. He’s landed in Broadchurch, it seems, to recuperate — both his head and his health, which have had a toll taken on them through the years spent on his previous case. Fresh from a vacation is Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman, The Iron Lady, Twenty Twelve), a local who has spent her life in Broadchurch and was promised the job that went to Hardy. She only finds out on the day she returns — and the day that 11-year-old Danny Latimer (Oskar McNamara) is found on the beach. That scene unfolds slowly and gracefully before it guts you. Hardy, walking toward the scene, is asking God for it not to be another dead kid, and Miller’s face darkens into grief when she realizes it’s Danny, the best friend of her son Tom (Adam Wilson) and the youngest child of her neighbors Beth (Jodie Whittaker) and Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan).
You don’t need to have children to feel the pain of the murder, but Broadchurch makes it visceral, as Beth and Mark grieve for their son and the close-knit town of Broadchurch mourns a familiar face and worries about the safety of their kids.
So much credit goes to Whittaker, who gives a master class in acting over these eight hours. Buchan, too, is called on to deliver a performance that would have been easy to copy from countless other grieving fathers but who instead fuses Mark Latimer with much more subtlety. It’s a performance that truly pays off in the end.
Of course, the wheels are driven by Tennant and Colman, who are always famously on their game as well-regarded actors and do not disappoint in even one frame of Broadchurch.
Credit, too, should go to directors James Strong and Euros Lyn, who are essential at creating such a vivid sense of place. The magnificent coastline gives them a lot to work with, but they do a wonderful job of showing beauty with the ominous nature of the terrain. And the night shots on Broadchurch are just stunning — particularly the impact of the ocean.
While the mystery drives Broadchurch — it’s a superbly crafted and deftly told story that slowly embraces a number of possible suspects as their backgrounds and secrets are unearthed — the series is at its best a multidimensional character study. Chibnall begins with the contentious but also funny and nuanced relationship between Hardy, a blunt and somewhat awkward superior, and Miller, who chafes at Hardy’s personality and leadership while fighting her disappointment at not getting the job. At the same time, Miller is realizing that Hardy’s jadedness — his belief that everyone’s moral compass can break given the right situation, which means that everyone in Broadchurch is a suspect — offsets her innate optimism and closeness to her neighbors in the small, familial town.
As the hunt for the killer begins, Chibnall keeps the Broadchurch focus on believable, well-drawn characters. Ellie’s husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle) anchors the home, helping son Tom through the emotional turbulence of his friend’s death. Olly (Jonathan Bailey) is a local reporter — and Ellie’s nephew — desperate to move to a larger newspaper and get out of Broadchurch. Danny’s death opens that door. But the arrival of Karen (Vicky McClure), a London journalist at a tabloid who wrote extensively about how Hardy botched that last case, challenges the boundaries Olly is willing to cross.
Nevertheless, Karen’s prying ultimately makes Danny’s death major news, and a series of articles draws out suspects in the town who have deeply held or at least untold secrets. There’s Jack Marshall (David Bradley, Game of Thrones), the elderly shop owner where Danny worked as a paperboy and who has spent years teaching the boys of Broadchurch how to sail; Reverend Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), who assists the local school with computer classes; Susan Wright (Pauline Quirke), a mean loner; and Nige (Joe Sims), who works with Mark Latimer at his plumbing company. These are all multidimensional characters who go beyond a mystery’s tendency to lean on red herrings for confusion — and that’s why they, along with other potential suspects, believably flesh out Broadchurch during its eight-hour run. And, in an embarrassment of riches, this series is littered with numerous quality acting performances. It’s just a thing of beauty all the way around.
It was announced at the Television Critics Association press tour that the BBC (and thus BBC America) will have a second season of Broadchurch, and an American version will appear on Fox (where Chibnall will help out some). It would be an amazing feat if the brilliance of this first season can be duplicated, but here’s to them trying.
In the meantime, do not miss a moment of Broadchurch starting tonight — and brace yourself.