“Broadchurch”: One of Television’s Greatest Dramas
“Broadchurch,” a BBC series, should be considered one of the great television dramas of the modern age. It is brilliantly scripted, perfectly cast and produced with an eye for both dramatic and artistic quality. Every moment is riveting and its perspective is completely unique. On the surface it is a fascinating murder mystery told in eight parts. The riddle of who killed an 11-year-old boy on a beach near a small town in Britain is absolutely intriguing. If you simply love a good mystery, you can’t do much better. But it is in the unique perspective of the show – focusing on how a death affects a family, a community, and the investigators – that the show becomes unforgettable.
The 1950s are often considered “The Golden Age of TV Drama.” As a cultural historian, I certainly wouldn’t argue with that. However, I believe that we are living through the second Golden Age. With the explosion of cable and satellite TV producers and channels, there is more great drama available on television today than at any other time in our history. Streaming services, DVD sets, and on-demand allow us to watch “Mad Men,” “Downton Abbey,” “House of Cards,” “Game of Thrones,” ” Breaking Bad,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Homeland.” Broadcast television has mostly abandoned the playing field. The networks offer up endless variations on “NCIS,” ” Law and Order,” and “CSI.” One notable exception is “The Good Wife,” which is as good as any drama series on television.
Back to “Broadchurch.” David Tennant and Olivia Coleman star as very different detectives thrust together to solve a murder in a community that is close-knit and considered very safe. She is a lifelong resident of the community and knows most of the people involved and affected by the murder. He is an outsider with an off-putting personality and a checkered history in a previous high-profile murder case. The two of them struggle to get along. However, their struggles are not the usual bickering, mismatched personality stereotypes used on so many dramas. Their differences are grounded in their different realities. She has no experience working a murder case and has to question and suspect people she has known all of her life. He has no emotional investment in the town and cares only about solving the crime. They never do see eye to eye and there is never a typical resolution to their personality differences. They are simply very different people. Neither is always right and each makes intriguing observations and clumsy mistakes.
While the detectives struggle to solve the murder, we experience something rarely shown on American television. We are taken into the lives of the family who lost a son, a grandson, and a brother. When you watch boilerplate network television dramas like “CSI,” the focus is on the investigation. We get a tearful scene or two of the families, but they are an afterthought. The show is about the detectives and the process. “Broadchurch” is different in that the suffering and questions of the family are an intricate part of the drama. We can never forget that the victim was loved and missed by people who are a typical family. They are complex and neither saintly nor terrible. Watching the boy’s mother struggling to get through police lines to see if the body on the beach is her son is heart-wrenching and very real. We see the murder from the points of view of the boy’s friends, neighbors, and townspeople who don’t know the family but want a resolution. Every point of view is unique and logical in its own way. While everybody wants the crime to be solved, everyone has their own lives to live and their own secrets to keep.
Another factor that makes “Broadchurch” so unique is that it shows religion as being a part of the lives of some of the characters. Very rarely on network television do we see people turning to religion on a daily basis or even in moments of great crisis. The family of the boy who was killed actually doesn’t attend church much, but finds some solace in a well-meaning minister who himself has secrets to keep. The role of the church in the small town is told in a manner that is likewise very realistic. The minister himself admits that he struggles to keep church relevant in a technological age. He sees the murder as an opportunity to remind people of their spiritual needs. It may seem a small point, but when you consider how many people attend religious services on a weekly basis in real life the absence of religion on television becomes all the more striking.
Without giving away the solution to the mystery or any important plot points, “Broadchurch” may sound ponderous. It is not. Any parent watching the show will have a deep, emotional connection to the reaction of the community to losing a child. Anyone who loves brilliant mysteries will be intrigued as you guess along, trying to find the solution to the crime. On an artistic level, the series is beautifully shot. Locations are both real within the town and yet very evocative in the framing of shots and lighting of scenes. And then there is the acting. Perhaps British audiences watching the show will be readily familiar with most of the actors. David Tennant is familiar in America for playing one of the incarnations of Dr. Who. However, the supporting cast, will be unfamiliar to American audiences. The casting and direction were impeccable. Each actor approaches their role as if it was the single most important character in the entire drama. And that is as it should be. Every person is the star of their own lives and everyone else is a supporting player. Although there are two bigger name stars in “Broadchurch,” it is not a star driven vehicle. We become fascinated, enraged, and intrigued by each of the people with whom they interact.
“Broadchurch” is a show that stays with you after the final credits. Scenes resonate on an emotional and dramatic level. You can enjoy the mystery, appreciate the production, and be deeply moved by the drama.
America’s greatest investigative journalist, in my opinion, is Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger. Jerry’s reporting is responsible for the reopening of decades-old murder cases from the civil rights era. He was responsible for the reopening of the murder of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Burning Case, the Birmingham Church Bombing and numerous others. One of Jerry Mitchell’s most amazing contributions to our understanding of these infamous and historic cases has been his ability to remind us of the human toll the murders took on the families of the victims. It is easy to think of Medgar Evers as a noble martyr, which he was. Being the champion of reopening the case is a noble responsibility. However, Jerry also reported often on what the death of Medgar Evers actually meant to his wife, his brother, his children, and his friends. I have criticized the movie Mississippi Burning for not even naming “the boys” who were killed trying to help African-Americans get the right to vote in Mississippi. Jerry Mitchell made sure that his readers always knew that these men left behind very real mothers and wives and brothers and friends who grieved them four decades later. It is not just his brilliance as an investigative reporter that makes Jerry Mitchell such a powerful force. It is the depth of his humanity in reminding us of the human toll that violence takes that differentiates him from someone who just wants to solve the mystery.
Jerry and I are friends. I had the honor of being a supporting player in two of his most important investigations. I thought of Jerry often as I watched “Broadchurch.” I’m sure he would be very critical of the newspaper reporters portrayed in the series! But I thought of him for a different reason. Too often television and the media simply sensationalize crime without reminding us of its real impact. Here is a quick quiz for you. What is the name of the person Phil Spector murder? What is the name of the young man O.J. Simpson killed? You probably know the name of Timothy McVeigh but do you know how the families of his victims are doing? Jerry Mitchell wouldn’t let you forget that Medgar Evers’ brother Charles still grieves. And “Broadchurch” never lets you lose sight of the emotional chaos caused in a family and a community when even one person is killed.