Produced in the UK for iTV back in 2013, the award-winning Broadchurch is a fictional small-town crime drama. Chris Chibnall (Torchwood, Doctor Who) created and wrote this gem, an eight-part whodunit sucker punch, casting a heartbreaking shadow over the modern murder mystery genre. There are certain parallels with Twin Peaks here – little community rocked by suspicious death of youngster and investigated in different ways by local and outside detectives – only here the seaside Dorset circle is a million miles away in execution and tone from the surreal world of David Lynch.
The daunting prospect of a boy who appears to be about to leap from a cliff is horrifying to say the least. That is the very first sequence of the show. Realizing her eleven year-old son is missing from his daily routine – notably his packed lunch still on the table, he did not do his paper round, is not at school, etc – Beth Latimer (the heart-breakingly good Jodie Whittaker, Attack The Block) falls straight into worry mode. The first of many (extremely effective) slow-motion sequences comes when Beth hears a body has been discovered on the beach and makes a run for it. The motion has to slow down because we have to take this in too. There is certainly some hostility and lack of respect between the parents even before the bad news, especially from the husband Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan, Nowhere Boy).
Having just had the news that the Detective Inspector job assured to her has gone to an out-of-town detective instead, Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman, Hot Fuzz) meets the new D.I. Alec Hardy (David Tennant, Doctor Who) for the first time on the beach where the boy’s body is found. Miller, as Hardy insists on calling her, knows the victim: Danny is best friends with her son. As Beth arrives at the scene and sees her son’s trainers on the body, Miller tries to restrain her. It could well be the most exhilarating opening ten minutes of drama you will find anywhere at the moment.
Broadchurch does not really give you a lot of breathing space beyond that. We have to soon watch three generations of a family all seated on the couch react to the death of the boy. There is some no nonsense detective work from Hardy coupled with the more humane and sensitive Miller juxtaposed against the underworld of unethical and ruthless journalism, including the nuisance of Twitter. And there are already, by the end of the very first episode, twitches of nervous wonder with background characters, some of which don’t even get dialogue in the first episode. At those final moments during the press conference, we are faced with an array of potential suspects.
Olivia Colman, who has also done her fair share of wacky comedy with Green Wing and Peep Show for example, brings twinges of real-life embellishments. She is trusting and polite, but the overwhelming performance is rock solid dramatic genius. Miller is a compassionate soul, and we live her journey in real-time, struggling to curb the emotion of the loss while remaining professional in her police work. David Tennant cuts out all of that slight goofy edge he brings to the screen, most notably perhaps in Doctor Who. In fact he is not one inch bullshit in his performance and his character – there’ll be no messing around here. Though Hardy’s reputation suggests he has let a family down with his detective work prior, and that he may now be looking for penance.
As the story unfolds the potential killers come into the light. The Latimer family themselves give Miller a list of names they think might have done it. “But these are your friends,” Miller says sadly. The father, Mark, creates suspicion by trying to hide the fact he was shagging some other woman the night his son died. Then a local newsagent gets the fingers wagging because of a year he spent in prison. There are so many dark corners and eerie character secrets emerging from the woodwork it seems that attention is easily, and maybe conveniently, switched elsewhere. The carousel of suspicion in fact hardly stops spinning at all. You’re naturally forced to weigh up the empathy and judgements you have for the chosen accused, and the locals that simply follow the tide of suspicion. Sometimes the blame shifts before any more damage is done. Sometimes it is too late.
A telephone engineer claims to have received messages from the dead Danny, and although is shooed away as madness, the detectives start listening when evidence backs up his words. Still nothing like Twins Peaks? It is not like he was telling them to ask the log (or that we visit a certain red room). The closer we get to the truth and to the potential identification of the murderer, the more deceptive story lines and guess-who conundrums we are left to unravel. They – being the families, friends, police, and journalists – just want to solve the murder of Danny as is often reminded by Hardy when things digress. But whether they solve this or not it still remains there are just too many twisted characters and events to associate with just one murder, and you have to wonder how this town will ever recover from this.
The superb camera-work, which often dictates the pace with it blurs and drifting aways, and the ambient, emotive score by Ólafur Arnalds merge with the terrific drama. And it never falters in all honesty, like an atmospheric drumroll, fitted right next to the heart. Even when Hardy’s cracks start to emerge (we believed he did wrong to a previous murdered child) his own revelation spins your opinion on him full circle. His heart problems are caused by stress, and he has to live with his choice to take the wrap for something that was not his fault, protecting his own child the shame that his wife and her mother was having an affair. Tennant, by the way, is never better than in that moment of revelation.
The diverse range of characters, be it the young reverend recovering from alcoholism, Danny’s fifteen year-old sister, or even the mysterious woman living in the caravan with her dog, all contribute to the intrigue. Between Hardy and Miller’s mismatched detective styles though, they manage to find the right path to justice. Like those balls bouncing down that road, the pieces fall coherently together, slowly but surely. When we do find out, and re-live, what really happened, it changes the direction of your blood, and you gasp. Even if you suspected the killer at any point during the eight episodes, even in your deep, dark subconscious, it still hits you like cold water in the face. It makes your stomach churn.
The best is still to come when Hardy and Miller are left alone to reconcile with the hard, horrible truth. Colman’s devastating and impulsive reaction is beyond any kind of tour-de-force acting you are likely to see in any television or film production sequence of that nature. The faces of the families, the community, those we felt for, those we accused. Heartbreak, grief, and shock. Finding and convicting the killer of a child is never a happy ending, we are forgiven for thinking there might be solace. And Broadchurch shows us this, in cold, honest, and brilliant manner. As I myself recover, as just one viewer, I can only speculate how a second season can even imagine it can match this kind of television excellence.
Broadchurch Season One is available on Netflix Instant Streaming, on Amazon US and UK, and on DVD. Season Two premieres in the US on BBC America on Wednesday, March 4. Check local listings for times.