'Broadchurch' review: BBC America's crime drama does long-form mystery right
That's a very basic description of "Broadchurch," an eight-episode drama series that premieres Wednesday (Aug. 7) on BBC America. It could also be a description of "The Killing," which just concluded an improved but still problem-filled third season on AMC. Where the two shows go from their common starting point, however, is vastly different -- and "Broadchurch" is much better for it.
The series opens with the discovery of the body of a young boy at the beach in a small city on the English coast. Eleven-year-old Danny Latimer has either fallen or been thrown to his death from the cliffs above. DI Alec Hardy ( David Tennant, worlds away from "Doctor Who") is assigned to the case along with DS Ellie Miller ( Olivia Colman), who has lived in Broadchurch her whole life and whose son is a classmate of Danny's. (She's also not very happy that her bosses passed her over for a promotion in favor of out-of-towner Hardy.)
What unfolds is less a whodunit (though the mystery is, in fact, revealed by the end of the run) than a study of how Danny's death affects his family, his friends and the town. There are hints that Danny may have been keeping secrets from his parents, and Alec is clearly haunted by the memory of a previous case, one that a reporter from London ( Vicky McClure) is determined not to let him forget. Several residents of Broadchurch come under suspicion, and as the case winds on, viewers get to see the toll that takes.
What "Broadchurch" doesn't do, to its credit, is offer up a parade of red herrings before revealing the real killer. Alec and Ellie pursue a number of leads that don't bear fruit, but the show presents that work as part of the natural (and often frustrating) process of making a case rather than a series of OMG-it's-him-no-wait-it-isn't moments. The suspense that exists within the series results from the terrible sense of dread the detectives and many of the other characters feel at the nature of the case in a sunny place* where such horrible crimes just don't happen.
(*Here, too, "Broadchurch" offers up some contrast with "The Killing," which takes place in a version of Seattle that is so relentlessly gray and rainy it's a wonder the entire city isn't on suicide watch. Much of "Broadchurch" takes place in dazzling sunlight, making the contrast with the events it portrays that much more pointed.)
Tennant and Colman are stalwart leads, but there are strong performances up and down the cast, with Jodie Whittaker in particular standing out as Danny's mother, Beth. Andrew Buchan is also very good as Beth's husband, Mark, who's hiding some things, as is David Bradley ("Game of Thrones'" Wlader Frey and Filch the caretaker in the "Harry Potter" movies) as a newsstand owner for whom Danny worked as a paperboy.
"Broadchurch" doesn't come with many stylistic flourishes -- it's a pretty straightforward crime story. But the care given to its characters and the damage the crime inflicts on the town make it one of the best scripted series of the summer. It premieres at 10 p.m. ET Wednesday on BBC America.