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Broadchurch - Season 1

Reviewed by Nathaniel Segal

Created and written by Chris Chibnall
First season of eight episodes that were broadcast in Britain during August and September 2013, as well as over BBC America.
Produced for Independent Television (ITV) by Kudos Film and Television & Imaginary Friends.
DVD edition for North America - 2014

Scriptwriter Chris Chibnall – who also seems to be the auteur of this series – uses two plot devices that are among Agatha Christie's favorites —

For Christie, almost every character except for Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple is a suspect when Agatha Christie writes Death on the Nile, for example.  The featured exception in that novel and screenplay is that Poirot deputizes one upstanding citizen whose character is unblemished and who has no motive to commit the novel's crime.

In Broadchurch, Detective Inspector Alec Hardy's "deputy" is partner detective Ellie Miller.  Writer Chibnall does not allow us to believe that Miller could have committed the murder that drives the plot.  This is the murder of Miller's son's friend.

Christie's other device is that all the suspects seem to be important to British society.  Her evidence for this corresponds to the classist society of her time.  All the suspects are upper class.  When Christie wrote, it was unspeakable to consider one of these elite as unimportant.  In contrast, many recent whodunits – police procedurals – revolve around a murder victim who, we feel, almost deserves to die.  At the very least, no one is likely to miss the victim of these whodunits.

In Broadchurch, each resident of the town is important because they are the salt of the earth.  No one in Broadchurch deserves to be murdered because of their all too ordinary flaws.  One character is an alcoholic.  He has been sober for close to five hundred days, though.  His alcoholism demonstrates a flaw that might have blemished his character from bad behavior when he had been a drunk.  But now he goes to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, albeit in secret.

In addition, author Chibnall has created other characters who are unwilling or unable to reveal secrets although the revelation might exonerate them.  All fail to tell the detectives the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, and some outright lie.  Detectives Hardy and Miller waste a lot of time uncovering these secrets when they could have been following authentic clues.

Nevertheless, we don't feel that anyone in the town of Broadchurch deserves to be murdered.  Their secrets are venal but not criminal.

Given that this series takes place in the twenty-first century, forensic evidence plays its important role.  Author Chibnall lets forensic evidence pop up inadvertently and unexpectedly and in surprise places.  These new finds of evidence are discovered only from time to time and over a period of several episodes.

Although the possibility that a serial murderer has taken up residence or has passed through the town is mentioned by the detectives, this is barely investigated.  Chibnall has accustomed us to believe that a resident committed the murder out of banal motives in ordinary circumstances.

The lurking menace over the town comes from the national press, though.  First, local cub reporter Olly Stevens, nephew of detective Miller, puts the family of the murdered boy through another anguished crisis.  When hearing how nephew Olly has notified national press, Miller calls him a "little shit."  Although the phrase "big shit" is my own, it characterizes the behavior of national journalists in this series.

The pervasive menace of journalists is not because they have "criminal minds."  They are also simply venal, working to attract prurient readers.  But I do see how journalists contrast with the residents of the town by its name 'Broadchurch'.  The town is a congregation of fellowship and goodwill with no hierarchy (in contrast to a High Church with hierarchy and seeming disinterest in fellowship).  We are unaware of any quarrels or feuds in Broadchurch.  The town seems entirely wholesome like Agatha Christie's set-up situations.  We are entirely surprised that a murder could take place in the town Broadchurch.  But journalists look for the town's shortcomings.  They look for quarrels and feuds.  They search out cases of those who have been shunned, those who are excluded from fellowship.

Broadchurch itself seems a good-enough place to raise healthy and well-adjusted children.  It's also an appropriate vacation spot for families during the town's six weeks of pleasant weather, sea, and sand.  And yet, one of its children has been murdered.

Enjoyable and rewatchable

By "rewatchable" I mean that I looked forward to rewatching these eight episodes just after viewing the eighth.  An allure of watching a series on DVD, as I did, is this rewatching.

The first episode of Broadchurch is especially well crafted from the first moment.  In a handful of minutes, author/creator Chibnall carries the viewer through the town and introduces us to almost every suspect in the murder.  However, he does this so deftly that the viewer senses nothing mechanical in such a treatment.  Chibnall presents a lively, whirlwind welcome to the town's residents, so it seems.

So watch and enjoy.  Keep in mind that you may want to watch this season of Broadchurch a second time.

A resemblance to the American series The Killing

This British series Broadchurch reminds me of the American series The Killing.

(This is not to be confused with the Danish series The Killing – Forbrydelsen; this Danish / BBC co-produced series seems not to be available on DVD in North America.  The European DVD set is encoded for region 2 which is incompatible with North America's region 1 playback protocol.  The BBC has not yet prepared a version coded for distribution in North America, as I write this.)

In The Killing, everyone whose lives touched the murdered girl Rosie Larsen is also suspect in her murder.  In this regard, creator and sometimes-writer Veena Sud is using one of Agatha Christie's plot devices.  Besides family members, suspects include a politician and an Indian Nation that may be harboring the criminal.

In The Killing, Detectives Sarah Linden and Stephen Holder are compelled to work as partners even though they don't want to.  In addition, the two detectives are surly and sulky loners.  In Broadchurch, Detective Alec Hardy has come in to displace detective Ellie Miller who was otherwise in line for promotion.  The relationship of the two detectives begins with disdain.  Hardy is a loner but not extremely so, and not sulky.

Linden shows little respect for Holder.  More importantly, she is unwilling to collaborate, perhaps even unable.  In Broadchurch, both detectives do learn to work together.  By Season 2, they have coalesced into a team.

As in Broadchurch, no one should expect either detective of being the murderer.  Sarah Linden's "deputy" is Regi Darnell, the social worker who helped her get through a nasty divorce and who is helping her with issues of being a single mother of a pubescent son.  Darnell is never a suspect, in the style of Agatha Christie.

Linden is trying hard not let her single parent family of two become dysfunctional by depending on Regi Darnell.  However, Linden becomes obsessed with finding Rosie's killer regardless of consequence.  In fact, she is so obsessed that she breaks off her engagement to be married.  She had had an opportunity to escape the northwest and to give her son a father figure.

In Broadchurch, Detective Hardy shares with detective Linden this characteristic of obsession.  We gradually learn why Hardy is obsessed, a motive stemming from his own secret [seeking redemption from the grip of a botched murder investigation].

The Killing is grittier than Broadchurch.  Perhaps this reflects Americans' perception of themselves.  Consider how noir genre author Raymond Chandler portrays an extreme view of America's secret decadence.  This decadence is such that I feel that the world is better when even one of his characters in the Big Sleep, for example, is murdered.  Why bother to find the culprit?  He or she did us a favor by eliminating a low-life.

Victim Rosie Larsen's world is corrupt.  Her family appears dysfunctional, which is to say that I am not surprised that she is rebelling.  It is sad that America's young people who try to escape dysfunctional families connect with corrupt and self-serving people.  She doesn't deserve to die, and the Larsen family doesn't deserve to suffer.

Even America's lovely Pacific Northwest has a seamy underbelly.  So in some ways, even this region is not a wholesome place to raise children.  We see little fellowship in the Larsen's community.  In fact, we don't see much of a community – only an isolated American nuclear family.  I didn't notice a school community, for example.  Some element of the American way of life seems to be the source of the Larsen's isolation.  A likely factor is how much the Larsens have to work to cling to a lower rung of the middle class.  As is typical in the U.S.A., both parents need the income.  In contrast, mothers in Broadchurch attend a morning physical competition between teams of their children on the grounds of the lower school (elementary school).

Considering my vitriol aimed at American life, how does Broadchurch remind me of The Killing?  Rosie Larsen in The Killing doesn't deserve to die.  The culprit must be pursued.  The plot of this series also uses Agatha Christie's other plot device.  Everyone around Rosie is a suspect until cleared.

Unlike The Killing, Broadchurch is not in the least bit noir.

Bonus material from the DVD

The resemblance of Broadchurch to The Killing is serendipitous.  Creator/writer Chibnall tells us that he developed his screenplay earlier.  Without such bonus material, the history of creation is a cipher.  More on this >>

Character actor Pauline Quirke (who plays Susan Wright, a vacationer in a caravan) recounts the first time the cast met, at their first session of reading the script.  She shared doubt about how well the ensemble cast would meld.  "We all had such different accents."  While the cast looks good together on screen, and may have even looked good together off screen, the voices didn't meld.  In particular, British actor Jonathan Bailey (reporter Olly Stevens) failed to convince me that his character was a native of the town of Broadchurch, even a native of Britain.  His pronunciation was inconsistent.  Bailey aggravated my ear off, so to speak.

American English is my first language, and I've never spent any time in Britain.  I do have an ear for languages, though.  Bailey was not the only cast member who didn't carry the voice of his or her character.  You who are reading this are unlikely to notice, so let's consider this criticism a footnote for trivia.

(Last updated August 9, 2016  10:18 AM)