BROADCHURCH, SERIAL, TRUE DETECTIVE, And The Resurgence Of Mysteries In 2014

It seems I’ve officially entered the “mystery” phase of my inevitable journey towards senior citizenship.

Recently I can’t get enough of the good old fashioned “who done it”. If I had to guess what brought this hysteria on, I’d offer my recent consumption and love for both True Detective, and the Serial podcast as culprits. When I recently gained access to the HBOGo service for the first time, True Detective was my very first experience. I found it thrilling and profound, and, when I finished it, wanted something else just like it which I knew didn’t exist. Then along came Serial, which became a phenomenon in the podcasting world, and which I listened to religiously each week from the start. Maybe my interest in True Detective had more to do with The McConaissance than it did my zeal for the mystery format, and that same star power factor got me to indulge in my Idris Elba love and check out thrilling BBC series Luther, which reinvigorated my excitement about the British TV format of shorter seasons with rich throughlines. So I followed all those logical breadcrumbs and watched all of Sherlock next. While that show was a blast, it had more of a zippy entertainment factor that didn’t lend itself to the depth of something like True Detective.

Tearing through mysteries at this pace, I panicked that I might be running out of great new mystery recommendations. And, God help me, I ended up turning to the place many of us end up when on the hunt for programming in 2014: a listicle.

I don’t know where it was posted, or who wrote it (does anyone ever remember that kind of thing when it comes to listicles?), but it sounded like it was written for me: “What To Watch Now That Serial Is Over”. Or was it “The Serial Podcast Ended, And You Won’t Believe What Happened Next”? I can’t be certain, but either way, I got turned on to Broadchurch (streaming on Netflix as of this writing), and I couldn’t be happier. If you’re anything like me and find yourself newly consumed by the burning desire to solve a new mystery, look no further than Broadchurch.

Part of the reason I spent so long laying out all the experiences that led me to hit play on Broadchurch is that some of those other fresh, modern mysteries gave me the perspective I needed to assess Broadchurch more fully. Because while I think True Detective and Serial were singular phenomena that may never be repeated, Broadchurch takes elements from the new school of mystery storytelling and mixes that with the oldest of tropes to create a wholly satisfying series.

Broadchurch is the name of a small seaside town in England, which is the setting for the show. 11 year old Danny Latimer’s murder sets in motion a police investigation, and the ripples of this murder spread through the entire small town. The Latimer family, as well as the detectives heading up the investigation, are the lead characters in a large ensemble cast. But we’ll come to know some dozen or so of the town’s residents as both well-fleshed out characters and as suspects in the case.

For the most part, Broadchurch is an old school mystery. There are tried and true elements to a good story that this show gets wholly right. For one thing, the rich characters found here are the secret weapon. Detective Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) is a kind hearted mother and wife who knows everyone in her town and at the outset finds herself snubbed for a promotion given to out-of-towner DI Alec Hardy (Dr. Who’s David Tennant), who himself has had some recent troubles on a botched case, and seems to have some ambiguous health issues as well. This mismatched partnership, complete with its differing methods and personalities, as well as varying familiarity with the townsfolk, makes for rewarding interplay throughout. Perhaps the best gag of the show is how often Ellie casually offers packed meals or coffees to Hardy, displayed her maternal instinct and kind-heartedness, as well as a subtle nod to her understanding that he is vaguely ill. Hardy’s constant refusal of the food she offers him is both humorous and also illustrative of his character’s relentlessness and disregard for niceties.

Slain child Danny Latimer’s parents are the other core duo of the show, with Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan) and Beth (Attack The Block’s Jodie Whittaker) being the extremely young parents of two kids who both have some secrets of their own. With these four providing the heart and soul of the show, while never themselves being above suspicion, the character groundwork is laid for a pretty spectacular viewing experience.

On top of that, the writing by show creator Chris Chibnall (Camelot, Dr. Who) offers perfectly timed clues and cliffhangers to make you need to hit play on the next episode no matter how late at night it is.

As I mentioned, all of this feels time tested. Write rich characters. Tell a thrilling story. Dole out well timed clues and misdirections. Audiences will respond.

What I love about the show and what still feels remarkably fresh (neigh new school) to me, is the format. Told over 8 roughly hour long episodes, our characters and story are allowed to breathe, and always progress. Growing up, the mysteries I experienced were episodic shows like Murder, She Wrote and Matlock. Central to those shows is a hard reset every episode. Jessica Fletcher needs to be the same person each new week. But here in Broadchurch, the Latimers and detectives are being fundamentally affected by the events of the show as they happen. The town of Broadchurch will never be the same after Danny’s death, and the 8 hours we get with this town allow all the implications of that to sink in. The drama is palpable, and side characters I haven’t even mentioned are sometimes able to have remarkably emotional and rich story arcs as they come under suspicion. And our leads have even more time to either push themselves to the limit to solve this mystery, or confront the semi-impossible task of recovering from their loss.

Maybe I’m wrong that this new school element is, in fact, new. I know serialized programming has been around since the 1930s and likely even earlier. But with British programming rising in popularity here in America, event programming and mini-series’ coming back into vogue, and the incontestable smash hit that was Serial, I couldn’t be more thrilled at what still feels like experimental formatting breaking through into the mainstream. Shorter seasons with holdover characters allow for tighter writing and more palpable consequences and I welcome more and more examples of this type of programming in the future. Which is virtually guaranteed, as almost every example I’ve given of recent mysteries I’ve been watching have future seasons ahead of them, or American remakes, or rumored transitions to the silver screen.

I won’t even come close to revealing the secrets of the show, but I will offer that I was totally satisfied by the resolution of Broadchurch as well. I’m one of those people who largely feel that it is more about the journey than the destination, though. So I didn’t find myself majorly disappointed in the conclusion of Lost, and found True Detective’s conclusion to be stellar, when many did not. And I can assure you that the series does indeed have a resolution, which was not the case, I understand, with the first season of The Killing (a show I haven’t seen but which started out with lots of buzz and seemed to go out with a whimper).

Regardless of whether you find the conclusion satisfactory, I do believe Broadchurch clicks on a character development level, and also feel that the show has worked hard to invest us as an audience by the time the mystery is being unraveled, so the experience has already been potent even if you don’t connect with the conclusion.

If anything beyond the criminal investigation elements and great writing connected both Broadchurch and True Detective in my mind, it was my pessimistic sense that neither of these great experiences could be duplicated. True Detective promises to move on to wholly new characters in season 2, which I find questionable since the characters were the most singular and spectacular element of that show. I’m hoping I’ll be proved wrong there, but the jury is still out. I have been harboring similar doubts about Series 2 of Broadchurch. The second season has been shot and promises to premiere on British ITV early in 2015. But Danny Latimer’s murder in this sleepy town was seismic precisely because crimes like that simply don’t happen in Broadchurch. So a second murder for another season doesn’t ring true to me at all. But to return to the town without a galvanizing event such as another murder feels like a complete genre shift, which could be interesting, but also fairly unprecedented.

I didn’t even realize until preparing to write this piece that Season 2 of Broadchurch is just around the corner for British viewers, and I look forward to getting my chance to check it out. Believe it or not there is also already an American remake of the show produced and currently airing under the name Gracepoint, also starring David Tennant and written by Chibnall, this time starring Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn). This is a surprise to me, but a welcomed one. After all, I only stumbled upon Broadchurch thanks to a listicle, and now I’m recommending it (and all these other great examples of the resurgent mystery) to you.

Am I really going to end this article giving thanks for the existence of listicles?

And I’m Out.

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