A whodunit is quite possibly the most common type of narrative that exists in fiction. Every single one of us is drawn to the inherent puzzle, as well the urgency created by the fact that there is a killer on the loose if the puzzle isn’t solved. Because it has been done so many times, the key to reviewing a whodunit is in the details. How is the story presented? How deep is the characterization of the victim and the suspects? Why should we care to follow the Detective, if we are following one?
Broadchurch is a whodunit with a lot going for it. It has a great cast, a great setting, and a gripping mystery. The series begins with the arrival of Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) to Broadchurch, a small coastal town. Hardy has taken the position that Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) expected to receive as a promotion, and she feels slighted to be assigned Hardy (an outsider) as a superior, given her in-depth knowledge of Broadchurch. Soon after Hardy’s arrival, 11-year-old Danny Latimer is found dead on the beach, and the two detectives embark on an investigation that rocks the small town.
The great thing about Broadchurch is not just the mystery of who killed Danny. The series succeeds because it takes the time to paint a picture of the town as a whole. Suspicion falls on MANY different townsfolk, and even those who are NOT under suspicion for Danny’s murder are hiding sinister or unsavory secrets. Hardy himself had sought out a position in Broadchurch because he felt the small town would be a retreat from the ugly, sinister cases he had seen in the past. What he comes to realize as the series progresses is that small towns can hide ugly secrets, too. The most interesting arc, however, belongs to Hardy’ partner Ellie. She is a member of the Broadchurch community. She has lived there, made friends there, built a career there. Now, Hardy demands that she look at her friends and neighbors with suspicion. After all, one of them is a killer. As a pessimist and a misanthrope, I like seeing narratives that don’t sugarcoat the black nature of humanity. Broadchurch is interesting because it validates Hardy’s suspicions and crushes Ellie’s optimism.
This is why it’s almost strange to see the series remade for American television as Gracepoint. I’d be curious to see if the American remake maintains the withering, bleak outlook of the original. In Broadchurch, even the people who were innocent of Danny’s murder proved to be terrible in other ways. Not since “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” episode of The Twilight Zone have I seen such a genuinely negative portrayal of “regular” people.
The performances in Broadchurch are spot on. Tennant, Colman, Jodie Whittaker as Danny’s mother are particularly strong. If I had one complaint about the series, it is that in writing Danny’s older sister, the creators have taken the lazy approach of the Bratty Teenage Daughter. Most recently an egregious element in Homeland, the Bratty Teenage Girl is a recurring trope that dictates that teenage female characters must be bratty, selfish, annoying, and act completely without care or logic. It is lazy writing, and sexist lazy writing, at that. Seriously, male writers of fiction: stop writing teenage girls without every trying to understand one. Here are two examples, just from recent posts on this blog, that prove that you can write a teenage girl with depth.
That rant aside, Broadchurch is definitely worth checking out. I can’t speak for the quality of Gracepoint yet, or whether it will make departures from the original narrative, but Broadchurch is out on DVD/blu-ray.