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broadchurchWe recently watched Broadchurch, a stark, haunting, subtly resonant drama about the murder of a young boy in a small coastal town in England. Seasoned with references to Thomas Hardy’s work (the series takes place in Wessex; one of the characters who was himself ostracized by society because of a forbidden relationship talks about reading Jude the Obscure; and of course the last name of one of the main characters is Hardy), there is a thread of weight, of tragedy, and of fatalism that runs through the work. And yet, unlike Hardy’s tragic melodrama, there are also luminous threads of hope, of human connection and of redemption.

Here are five things that I loved about the first series:

1. the Doctor is NOT in

Don’t get me wrong–I love the Doctor (I mean, seriously, he’s awesome. And like most of us I imagine, I also have pretty serious TARDIS envy). But, I really loved that there was no mistaking David Tennant’s Detective Inspector Hardy for David Tennant’s the Doctor. Other than (arguably) one scene, Tennant’s take on the dour, curt D.I. was fundamentally different to his portrayal of the Doctor. Not only do I love seeing an actor transform him- or herself, but this transformation was made the more impressive, given what a strong impression Tennant made as the tenth Doctor.

I also enjoyed the character himself–Hardy, with his drive, his haunted past, and his grim quest for redemption, as well as his occasional flashes of lightness, humour, and caring, that made it clear that the gruffness covered up an ability to feel that was, perhaps too deep, and made him too vulnerable, in his particular line of work. This was another reason I was glad not to see shadows of the Doctor lurking in Tennant’s portrayal–because Hardy as a character deserved to stand on his own. And stand he did.

2. Small Town Tension

Again and again, Broadchurch strays back and forth across the fine line that exists between the close-knit caring of a small community and the claustrophobic insularity that is its flip side.

In order to survive, members of small communities have walk the line between knowing far too much about everybody else’s business and respectfully declining to talk about it, at least to the people with the problems, out of a tacit sense of respect for at least the pretense of privacy. This allows everyone who is part of that community to face each other in grocery stores and coffee shops, and allows them to retain their pride, their dignity, and their belief that whatever problems they have are behind closed doors, rather than being public knowledge.

That kind of pretense can also be toxic. It means that domestic abuse, substance problems, emotional spirals–can go unremarked upon, even when everyone knows all the details. The line between letting someone retain some dignity in the face of challenges, and turning away from the drowning neighbour can often be misconstrued. Though everyone knows all the details, they feel it only right to wait for the abused spouse, the alcoholic, troubled soul barely keeping it together, to ask for help first.

Except of course, it’s never possible for anyone on the outside of any of these situations to actually know all the details. People guess. They make reasonable inferences. And generally, they’re in the right ballpark. But when something like this–the murder of a young boy–slashes across the community, then the gap between the inferences that the neighbours make as they fill in the details, and the whole truth about what’s really going on, becomes key.

And with the rise of mutual mistrust, the polite deferral to that nominal privacy is cast aside, as the community starts seeking answers. Instead of politely looking away, everyone starts actively peering into everyone else’s business. They start talking about all the things they have always declined to mention.

Broadchurch masterfully leverages the tension hidden inside that gap between inference and reality–between the assumptions that people make, based on knowledge they are convinced is far more comprehensive than it is, and how off the mark they can be. It’s in that gap that the truth about who actually committed the murder can be found. It’s also in that gap that the suspicions rise, and innocent people get hurt.  

3.  the Subjectivity

And by subjectivity, I mean that the characters we encounter are intensely subjective and feel like they are fully realized. Too often in drama, there will be a few characters that are objects rather than subjects–they are there to advance some plot element, to get something done, or ensure that something remains undone. They are the objects of the plot, rather than characters, with subjective desires, wants, biases and opinions.

Broadchurch does a wonderful job of showing us the subjectivity of a large cast of characters. Sure, some of them advance the plot–but they do it because subjectively, as a result of their biases, loves, hates, and paradigms, this is what they need to do, or say, or believe.

(Note: my husband says the next paragraph may be considered a spoiler. I don’t mention names or specific incidents, but those who are spoiler-sensitive be warned)

One particularly effective way this is accomplished ties into my earlier point about the gap between inference and reality: on more than one occasion, a character will make an observation that casts suspicion on someone else in the community. But rather than going the easy route, by ascribing some malicious motive or Iago-esque evil for the sake of itself, the writers here have chosen the more complex option of providing the character with a set of reasons why he or she might have made reasonable, genuine and in good faith inferences that are totally off the mark.

And even amid the off-the-mark inferences and assumptions, there are also moments when a character is completely taken by surprise. When he or she is not a rational actor, or simply cannot explain why. Not often–falling back on that tends to be fundamentally unsatisfying for the audience, if it’s used too often. But once in a while, selectively, it can be very effective indeed.

4. the Overall Feel

Broadchurch, particularly its first episode, reminded me of Twin Peaks in some ways: a murder ravages a close-knit community that is marked by a kind of Penny Lane-like dreamy banality, and an outsider in a dark suit is recruited to solve the crime. In doing so, neighbours who had previously been dismissed as benignly eccentric, are brought under suspicion, and the tensions and questions begin to pile up.

There is also a similar sense of oddness, of still waters and long histories underlying the relationships we see on the surface. As well, there’s a certain dreamlike quality to both series–a sense of deep, wistful loss or emptiness that permeates them.

But, they are also vastly different. While Twin Peaks was infused with off the wall humour and quirky, surreal oddness, Broadchurch is far darker, more serious, and more subtle in its stark minimalism. Though there are the occasional flashes of humour, for the most part it is marked by a deep sense of sadness and of lost illusions.

5. a Subtle Narrative of Redemption

(Note: again, no names, no specifics–just concepts–but maybe this one should also be flagged for the spoiler-sensitive)

I loved the way that Broadchurch dealt with redemption–and I don’t necessarily mean in a religious sense, for all that there is a vicar character who faces a set of struggles of his own. The redemption here is far more subtle, but also more wonderful, at least to me. It is portrayed as a series of small moments that give rise to often tiny-seeming shifts in attitude that end up having vast consequences. Again, it’s that sense of still waters and underlying depth, and the moments are often beautifully played as subtle, Joycean epiphanies, in which a character is poised at the crossroads and makes a choice that is ultimately redemptive, be it for him or herself or for another.

But redemption is not for everyone. There is a countervailing motif, a biblical notion of “judge not lest ye be judged” that runs through the series as well. We see those judgments, and we see the consequences of them. There is one such moment that for me played a little false, but for the most part, this is also beautifully done. Some who judge, later come to regret their assumptions (see above under point 2) or face consequences of the judgments that give rise to a different kind of regret. In all, there is a resonant, subtle and intriguing symmetry to these two motifs of judgment and redemption as they play out in the narrative, not as a precise correspondence, but as an implicit balance, as the town seeks to heal itself around this scar of violence, loss and tragedy.