Broadchurch is back – for better or worse?

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch - the Glum-Off begins!

Olivia Colman and David Tennant in Broadchurch – the Glum-Off begins!

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS

In my review of last year’s overrated The Honourable Woman, I found myself despairing at its embarrassing attempt to play with the big boys of HBO, AMC, and latterly Netflix, and wondered if this was the state of British TV drama. Though Happy Valley still appears to be ‘the one to watch’, I have now managed to catch up with both series of The Fall (Gillian Anderson great, show itself a bit of a slog) and the subject of this piece, Broadchurch, which returned for its second series last night.

Much of the talk in anticipation of the new series (confidently announced James Bond-style at the end of the first series) was where the story would go. Would we get the same leads on a new case, like The Killing? Why would they stick around in Broadchurch after all they’d been through? Or would they be sidelined and allow the spotlight to shift to other characters in the town? Well, in the end they went for something that sort of mixed the known past, the unknown past, and spun it out into a new genre altogether. With the killer caught, going to trial and declaring themselves ‘not guilty’, it throws an unwelcome trauma spanner into everyone’s lives, while giving audiences an early juicy shock. It was somehow obvious, even inevitable that this would be the case (creator and writer Chris Chibnall was the original showrunner on Law & Order UK, so the move from murder mystery to courtroom drama should have been expected), so I am not sure why I was so surprised by it. But it makes perfect sense in keeping the tragedy and central characters of series one involved.

Less of a surprise was how the events of Sandbrook and DI Alec Hardy’s (David Tennant) past would raise its head, primarily in the form of Eve Myles aka Torchwood’s Gwen Cooper, seemingly in an attempt for Chibnall to turn Broadchurch ever more into some weird retirement home for ex-Doctor Who cast and crew (and not helping the Tumblr crowd’s belief that Britain only has five actors). Unfortunately, it means we get more of Tennant’s world-weary schtick – you can avoid shaving, cultivate greasy hair and look like you’ve not slept for days all you want, it still doesn’t work. The only convincing thing about his appearance in US remake Gracepoint is weirdly his accent. But a teased flashback of Hardy looking fresher faced on the Sandbrook case hopefully means we get a more believable ‘before’ version of his character than his ‘after’. Rather it’s Olivia Colman as DS Ellie Miller who remains the only character that feels and behaves like a genuine human being in the whole show. With her, the dialogue and performance rings utterly true, which makes the prospect of seeing her continuously being put through the wringer (she spends the opening episode of series two almost entirely frowning and crying) somewhat troubling.

Yet, for all of the strength of her performance, and generally those of its crazy cast list, Broadchurch is no great shakes. It’s very watchable, it looks great (the landscapes remain stunning, and those cliffs still continue to impress – though the less said about the ropey visual effects in the last episode of series one), and it has a certain distinctive mood (thanks to its visual sheen and thoughtful score) that sets it apart from the standard ITV crime drama fare. I’ll admit I even might have done a cry during the very first episode. It’s no surprise Chibnall comes from the Torchwood stable, as at its worst, it can feel like a naïve and a childish version of a proper drama for grown-ups. Fine for Doctor Who, but with Broadchurch, it can feel like its making it up as it goes along, while its characters dip into simplified caricature (relying on the performers to sell some on-the-nose dialogue).

I guess this is why series two has taken the course it has, to allow Chibnall to go back and fill in the gaps left when he was feeling around in the dark first time round. Last night’s episode seemed largely to set up the idea that all secrets will come out, while Hardy’s being unfit for duty will be a major factor too. But that again remains a problem of the show, as characters continue to be so lacking in self-awareness. Everyone behaves so weird, wrong and creepy, it’s no wonder series one ended up largely consisting of the townsfolk turning against each other. They might as well call Broadchurch something more appropriate like Finger-Pointing-On-Sea.

The first episode of series two, despite shaking up things to a considerable degree, still didn’t do much to suggest that the show would be ditching its old habits any time soon. Oh look, the Rev is kissing the Hotel Lady! Oh look, Daddy Latimer is hanging out with now-obviously-more-grown-up-in-the-time-between-filming-series Kid Next Door. That’s going to end well! And there’s a baby on the way! And the needless reluctance of new cast member Charlotte Rampling taking on the Latimer case was as clichéd as the bitter detective with the shady past. Or the strange solitary lady grump with the shady past. Or the paedo old man… who is not really a paedo because it was a long time ago and he did his time and they got married and besides it is not too dissimilar to the young teenage couple now who are the same as her parents were when they started dating so who are you to judge and by the way the killer is also not really a paedo because nothing sexual happened okay (you getting my point about the show’s strange obsession with not outright endorsing but kind of justifying underage sexual activity?)…with the shady past.

Yet, for all its flaws, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in Broadchurch’s brand of summer holiday paperback thrills. It’s trash, but it’s elegant trash. Just don’t try and tell me it’s anything more than that.

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