Brooding and gloomy, “Broadchurch” is a grudgingly effective crime drama — managing to pull viewers through its grinding, “The Killing”-like paces even as its plethora of cop-drama cliches become increasingly aggravating and enervating. Like a lot of small towns on TV, this one is not what it seems, requiring only the shocking death of a young boy to scratch the surface and unleash all sorts of dark and sordid secrets. Although the Brits have developed a well-deserved reputation for gritty crime, this eight-part BBC America offering is a couple of notches below its best.
Created by Chris Chibnall (whose credits include the U.K. version of “Law & Order” and “Torchwood”), “Broadchurch” derives its name from the seaside community where 11-year-old Danny Latimer meets his grim end.
Much like “The Killing,” the multipronged plot focuses on his grieving family, journalists seeking a big break and, of course, two mismatched police investigators: newcomer Alec Hardy (David Tennant), who harbors secrets of his own; and the local cop passed over when he got the job, Ellie (Olivia Colman), whose role in the case is complicated by the facts she knows the dead boy’s family and has a son the same age.
The results are often visually striking, from the mesmerizing rows of identical housing to the sweeping coastal views. It’s only too bad the series doesn’t have more flair in terms of its narrative properties. Indeed, it would be nice just once to meet a new cop who wasn’t sporting a three-day-old beard and scars from a recent case that people keep referencing or who didn’t experience seizures at inconvenient moments. And the use of slow motion is as tedious as it is manipulative.
Yet even with those gripes, the story does drag the audience along, creating suspicions surrounding one character after another, and using the pain and loss of a single death to probe their individual stories. Part of that interest has to do with the strength of the cast, including Andrew Buchan and Jodie Whittaker as Danny’s parents.
This latest iteration on the protracted crime drama — teasing one investigation over an extended stretch, as opposed to the tidy resolutions of U.S. procedurals — also lends itself well to a European model consisting of shorter series orders, since it’s difficult to imagine something like “Broadchurch” being extended even a week longer. (Just witness the ruckus AMC’s adaptation of “The Killing” unleashed when it didn’t provide closure in season one.)
While the show’s payoff is likely to strike many as strained and unsatisfying, as well as disturbing, its raison d’etre is as much about the atmospherics and the getting there, with the twists trumping the actual whodunit.
“Who killed Danny Latimer?” won’t resonate like Laura Palmer, or even Rosie Larsen. But like Tennant’s dogged cop, those who commit to “Broadchurch” probably won’t want to give up on the investigation until they finally know who did.