There is much that seems generic about Broadchurch when you first confront it. It tells the story of the murder of a young boy in a small town where everyone knows everyone. Every character has their secrets … every character, at one time or another, is a suspect. In the end, the mystery is solved, but the small town is changed forever.
But there are many reasons why Broadchurch is far better than a simple description of its plot might suggest. Start with the writing, which is excellent. Add the believable and atmospheric location shooting, and the top-notch cast (all but one of whom I knew nothing about). This all brings Broadchurch to the higher levels of the solid whodunit.
But I would argue that the structure of the series is what took it over the top. Broadchurch is a British show that aired on ITV, with BBC America picking up the U.S. rights. There are only eight episodes (although a second season is apparently going to happen, about which more in a bit). And eight is exactly the right number.
A typical whodunit like this might turn up as a single episode in a series, with everything taken care of in an hour. A movie version might last twice as long. But eight episodes, totaling around six hours, add a depth that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. There was no rush to uncover the murderer. Instead, as the case progressed, we got to know the people in the small town, a couple of dozen at least. Each character gets the time to show their depth. We have favorites and not-so-favorites, we think we know whodunit (a basic pleasure of the genre), and each episode, we know those people a little bit better. Thus, the impact of this horrible event on the town is driven home to the viewer, through the way it impacts the characters. And eight episodes allows us to get inside each of those characters in turn.
The whodunit aspect of the series is very good, as well … it moves along at a decent pace, the red herrings are well-placed. This is not one of those mystery series that strings the viewer along, endlessly. The detectives in charge, played by David Tennant (the one actor I’ve heard of) and Olivia Colman (who I didn’t know, but wow, I know her now), are interesting, with just as much depth as the other characters.
By the final episode, when the killer is revealed, you are exhausted in a good way. (I can’t imagine binge-watching this … the emotional turmoil would be unbearable without breaks.) The minute we find out the killer’s identity, we start thinking about what that discovery will mean for all the characters we have come to know. That’s what the first seven episodes have established, and it makes the final episode heartbreaking. The big reveal comes early in the episode, giving time for those characters to react, one by one, before the series ends.
And that ending is fitting, bittersweet, and final. I was surprised to see a second season has been ordered … sure, you’d want to repeat something of quality, but those eight episodes resolved themselves so nicely that it’s hard to see what could be next. No matter what comes, this first season is there for people to catch up on, and I strongly recommend you do, with the caveat that it is emotionally wrenching. Grade for season: A.