I watched the first season of Broadchurch ages ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Sure, it feels a little weird to say I enjoyed the experience of watching two detectives investigate a young boy’s murder in an English seaside town, but someone else can write the 5,000 word think piece discussing why people find murder mysteries so appealing. My short take is that human relationships are endlessly fascinating and murder mysteries are like puzzles. Plus, this particular one stars David Tennant and Olivia Coleman as the detectives in charge of the case (both of whom I could watch explain the intricacies of tax law with rapt attention—no personal offense to tax law intended).
The series begins the morning after young Daniel Latimer’s death, but before anyone notices his absence. DS Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) has just returned from a vacation with her husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle) and their two sons Tom (Adam Miller) and Fred (Benji Yapp) to discover that the promotion she thought was hers has been given to DI Alec Hardy (David Tennant), who left his last position under suspicion of incompetence. DI Hardy is anti-social, unemotional, and unflagging. He doesn’t want any life in the town beyond finding Danny’s killer as a way to desperately atone for mistakes made in previous cases. DS Miller, on the other hand, exudes warmth, is close with Danny’s family, and desperately wants to see the best in everyone. (She also always wears her purse slung across her chest in a way that made my whole body ache.) There’s certainly nothing groundbreaking in pairing an older, curmudgeonly detective with a younger sunnier one, but these two manage to make feel fresh. Their mis-matched working relationship brings humor and levity, without it veering into crass or campy. And it’s a welcome contrast to the bleak background of boy’s death in a town where abso-fucking-lutely everybody has at least one deep, dark secret that, of course, they choose to lie to the police about, which complicates the investigation and everybody’s lives.
Seriously, though, everybody in the town of Broadchurch has a secret. And because of these secrets (and the lies they lead the characters to tell), nearly everyone will eventually fall under suspicion until it feels like the entire town is looking over their shoulders or exchanging icy stares or gathering into an angry mob. It blows apart the idea of the perfectly cheerful little seaside tourist town, which, again, is not a new idea for a mystery, but it works well here. (I should say that at some point a character claims the town has 15,000 people, which made me feel very high and mighty because to me that’s a small city, not a small (or even large) town, but I suppose here maybe they’re comparing it to a village? I don’t know.) Even with everyone and their long-lost second cousin twice removed becoming a suspect, the final reveal of the murderer still felt (at least to me) shocking and devastating. It also felt like the end of the story for the viewers.
So I was surprised and disappointed when I watched the trailer for the second season and saw that it would follow the murder’s trial. I don’t know, I felt like I had lived enough of these people’s pain and grief, and I didn’t want to plunge back into the same story and the same characters reliving the same events in a new context. I think this is in part because the grief and anger, particularly from Danny’s family, is so palpable throughout the season that it feels as if you are really watching a family and their larger community try to overcome a loss so great that it threatens to pull them all under. Of course it’s part of most series about murder and loss, but in Broadchurch the feelings portrayed are so raw and flawed that it feels entirely real. If that makes sense.
So I didn’t watch. And I moved on with my life. That is until a friend in need contacted me. He and his wife had started watching the second season, but a couple of episodes in his wife bailed on him. He needed someone to process it with, and—was I sure I wouldn’t reconsider watching? I mean, how could I, someone dedicated to the cause of watching and talking ad nauseum about shows, say no to such a plaintive request of a friend in dire need of my assistance? I could not. And so I watched. (And yes, I am so humble about the whole thing that I didn’t even mention it until now.)
Anyway, the second season was…definitely not as good as the first. I have this theory, which I’ve made you listen to it before, that sometimes shows have to go through an adolescent rebellious period before returning to a better path. This definitely felt like the writers were getting some not-so-brilliant ideas out of their systems. There are two parallel storylines in this season. One follows the murder trial where yet more secrets are revealed and grudges are hashed out. It was more engrossing than I expected, but also not that riveting. Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Marianne Jean-Baptiste show up as the murderer’s very competent and possibly soulless lawyers. They are absolutely hideous people who somehow still manage to be compelling and somewhat appealing because of the actresses who play them. It’s an unsettling feeling, and even more so for my friend, who has other sorts of feelings for Phoebe Waller-Bridge. The show misses what I thought was a golden opportunity to focus more on the murderer as a villain. Their self-pitying, whining tone and pathetic pouting is absolutely chilling.
Instead, as a parallel storyline, the writers chose to bring back characters from DI Hardy’s previously bungled “Sandringham” case. It turns out he’s been hiding Claire (Eve Myles), a key witness from the case, for months in a remote house near Broadchurch. I told you every-fracking-one had secrets! Then her estranged husband (and possibly the perpetrator of the murders in that case), Lee (James D’Arcy), shows up to take off his shirt a lot, torment DI Hardy with murky clues, and squint into the middle distance. Look, it’s not the case 100% of the time, but I think you should be skeptical every time a detective and a possible criminal start having lots of off the books heart-to-heart chats. It’s often a sign that a show is going sideways or jumping the proverbial shark. Oh, and speaking of hearts, DI Hardy has some health issues that cause him to get all woozy and pass out a lot in a very dramatic fashion. It’s a lot, and I think they could have shown his vulnerabilities in a way that didn’t involve quite so much dizzying camera work. Anyway, I’m still awaiting remuneration from the creators for all the time I spent watching Claire staring at someone while all glassy-eyed and Lee squinting in angry frustration in the middle of some field.
The third season finally leaves behind both the Danny Lattimer and the Sandriham cases to focus entirely on solving the case of a woman’s brutal sexual assault. (Though Danny’s family does show up some.) It lacks some of the emotional depth and breadth of the first season, but it’s a definite upgrade from the second season. I did find it extremely, extremely difficult to watch the scenes of the sexual assault and of the woman (Julie Hesmondhalgh) dealing with the physical and psychological aftermath of the attack. Obviously, everyone here will once again have many secrets and tell many lies, but you know that eventually Hardy and Miller will suss out the real culprit, and it’s mostly satisfying and disturbing when they do.
Very long story short, obviously you should watch Broadchurch because Olivia Coleman and David Tennant (and also an extremely strong supporting cast) solving murdery things is entirely satisfying. Especially, I would argue, when the world is a sewage fire that people in charge are attempting to extinguish with tiny squirt guns. I think that you could safely skip the second season and still have a very gratifying viewing experience. But maybe squinting stares, dizzying camerawork, and a soulless Phoebe Waller-Bridge are your thing and you end up absolutely loving it. No judgement here. Okay, that’s an absolute lie, but it’s like a friendly, good-natured, jocular kind of judgement where we can still sit down and compare notes about the show.
(Wait! before I go, may I tell you the thing I found least believable out of all three seasons and twenty-four episodes? It was the moment when a twelve year old boy was asked his shoe size and immediately knew the answer. Friends, I guffawed because it is a work of utter fantasy that a kid would instantaneously know their shoe size, especially when being asked by an intimidating detective.)