Broadchurch a clever murder mystery

People love to talk about how we live in a “Golden Age of Television.” With the rise of the cable drama in the last decade, and the ever-increasing range of channels offering scripted programming, we have seen the artistic ambitions of television dramas skyrocket.

The problem with this argument is that it smooths over the rough edges of the current TV landscape. Yes, we have had some truly incredible shows, from The Sopranos at the beginning of this era to more recent shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, but not every show is of that caliber.

And while these great shows have had a tremendous impact on the medium, their numerous imitators quickly become ubiquitous. It seems the main lesson these imitators have taken is that TV dramas should be about violence.

There is nothing inherently wrong with violence as a subject, but the sheer mass of these dark dramas has led to an association in audiences’ minds between violence and “quality television.” As new networks like AMC and FX have entered the field, they have chosen shows that fit into that mold, because those are the types of dramas that are successful today, that win awards and draw critical praise.

The few hour-long shows that don’t feature weekly doses of crime and murder are dismissively termed “dramedies,” as if their comparatively lighter tones make them somehow less important.

Shows like NBC’s Parenthood, Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, and ABC Family’s sadly-canceled Bunheads all deserve consideration alongside the best of what is on the air today, but their focus on lighter subjects practically disqualifies them from the discussion.

All of which is to say that Broadchurch, a new show airing on BBC America, is yet another show about violence, but it presents an avenue for growth in a genre that has come dangerously close to stagnation.

Broadchurch is less interested in the spectacle of the violence than in the corrosive social impact of that violence in a community. It tells the story of the murder of a young child in a quiet British sea-side town. The town is understandably devastated by the act, and experienced detective Alec Hardy (David Tennant) is called in to work with local officer Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) to solve the case.

Tennant is the biggest name in the series, known for his work on Doctor Who, and while his performance as the Doctor was all manic energy and irrepressible excitement, here he plays a man so damaged by his work that he has difficulty with simple social interactions. He represents the cynical side of the investigation, the side which says that any person could be a suspect, even the murdered boy’s family, while Detective Miller is the optimistic side, a person so involved in the community that she has difficulty believing any of her neighbors are capable of such a horrendous action.

On a macro-level, Broadchurch is structured like a standard “whodunit” mystery. In the first episode we’re introduced to a large cast of townspeople, and by the eighth and final episode, one of those people has been revealed to be the killer. When you drill down to the individual beats of the story, however, the show’s strengths become apparent.

While most shows today create elaborate mythologies to be revealed in their climactic episodes, Broadchurch ignores that type of mechanical plotting in favor of an emotional drive. There are clues to the identity of the killer, certainly, and perhaps some viewers are able to solve the mystery before the ending.

I didn’t figure it out, and most of my theories about the ending were focused more on hoping that each successive suspect was not guilty. The show does an excellent job of creating lived-in, complex relationships between the townspeople and the victim’s family, and as each character is made to look suspicious, from the local priest to the boy’s scout troop leader, I found myself dreading the reveal of their guilt, simply because it would be so devastating if it were true. Like Detective Miller, I didn’t want to believe these people could be capable of murder, but, over the course of the series, I became increasingly willing to do so.

That structure, in which suspects are primarily handled sequentially, though sometimes the show refocuses on a suspect who had previously been thought cleared of suspicions, could be extremely frustrating to watch. Instead, the show offers minor revelations, secrets these characters hide that are stirred up by the investigation.

The show’s setting at first appears to be an idyllic town, but the information revealed over the course of the season injures the health of a community already wounded by tragedy. It helps, of course, that the cast is uniformly terrific, from the two leads to the supporting casts, which makes every character sympathetic. Even the eventual reveal of the killer’s identity is heartbreaking: not just for the tragedy itself, but also because of the circumstances which led that character to such an action.

As you can probably imagine, Broadchurch is a fairly heavy show. While the primary focus of the show is the investigation, a good chunk of every episode is devoted to the ways in which the central family deals with grief.

I initially tried to watch the show weekly as it was airing on BBC America, but I quickly caved and blasted through the rest of the season (all of which is currently available on Amazon and iTunes, and which will likely pop up on Netflix within the next six months).

Don’t let that bleakness turn you off from the series, however. This is a rewarding show, one that proves that there is room for the dark TV drama to grow without turning into a parody of itself.

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