Thursday, August 8, 2013


Pronounced something like "Brudcharch" in my head after watching too many episodes and mentally assimilating a Scottish accent, I was recently informed of this series and gave it a watch. I went in with absolutely no preconceptions. All I knew was that Broadchurch was a crime drama starring David Tennant. It's been established that I like a bit of crime fiction, but you may be wondering why I would want to watch something with Tennant in given my antipathy for his most famous performance. Before this, however, I had only watched him in three roles. The most recent was the grotesque mishandling of the Doctor in New Who. Before that there was his brief spot as Barty Crouch Jr in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a ridiculous bit of ham virtually indistinguishable from his portrayal of the Doctor. The earliest thing I've actually seen him in, however, is as humorously mediocre jobbing actor Rob Harker in a memorable episode of Chris Langham's little-remembered mockumentary series People Like Us. I was convinced, having seen this and his guest spots on shows like Never Mind the Buzzcocks and QI, that Mr. Tennant could do more than just portray manic-depressive wackos I wanted to punch in the face. Thus, observing him in action was actually impetus towards watching Broadchurch rather than a problem.
By the end of the first episode I had discovered several things. Firstly was that David Tennant and his offsider played by the dependable Olivia Colman in a surprising non-comedic role were only the most important protagonists of a much larger ensemble piece. The second was that Broadchurch was a show which was focused around the solving of a single crime, and was not the serialised detective fiction I was expecting. The third was that the show was, to my horror, written by Chris Chibnall of all people, that very same mastermind of bad sci-fi writing who is condemned to eternal disapproval for asking pedantic questions of Pip 'n' Jane Baker in the Eighties. All of these things caused me to adjust my preconceptions. The large cast was, fortunately, still grounded in the two detectives, which gave a certain focus to the action. The investigation of a single long-running mystery was I think laboured at times, but it did avoid a Midsomer Murders scenario in which some small English hamlet becomes the biggest crime hotspot in the country. The third helped me understand the source behind some of the melodramatic and clunky dialogue.
The premise of Brudcharch is briefly this: 11 year old local child du jour Danny Latimer has been murdered. New ball-busting senior officer from elsewhere, Alec Harding as portrayed by David Tennant and his permanent five o'clock shadow, has just taken over the running of whatever the detective part of the police service is called in the town where the murder has taken place, a West Country beach destination of all places called Broadchurch. He's assisted by Ellie Miller, Olivia Colman, who was passed over for promotion to make room for Tennant, who's notorious for having bungled a similar case elsewhere. Over the course of the series the digging required to unearth these secrets basically ends up airing all the dirty laundry of this entire community. Also Tennant has a heart condition, is divorced and never sees his daughter, which isn't the most original characterisation ever devised.
So Tennant's the grumpy one who occasionally doubles over clutching his chest, Olivia Colman's the frustrated local who's having her trusting nature and naïveté stripped away by the investigation, and the rest of the town is a hotbed of dark secrets, where true to the conventions of 'edgy' modern storytelling 'dark secrets' basically means that every second inhabitant of the town is some kind of sexual pervert - as opposed to the other kinds of perverts, I guess. So there's the people having affairs, the people who had or are having underage liaisons, the people who abused children and so on. One of them used to be an alcoholic, that's about the extent of the variety as far as it goes. It's an incredibly Freudian account of the conflict between human nature and laws and social norms. While it's fine to explore these issues, the things Tennant and Colman unearth are so single-mindedly sexually pervy in nature that it becomes almost absurd, especially as the middle episodes devolve into a series of red herrings involving people needing to be plied to provide alibis because they're covering up some dodgy secret from their past.
I think if I'd been watching Broadchurch from week to week I would have become frustrated with it, but fortunately I was watching in a few big blocks so I didn't become bored or frustrated with the pacing too much. The biggest problems are, as I've stated, the monotonous nature of people's secrets, the meandering investigation and an occasional bit of scripting awkwardness where characters have to deliver lines or perform scenes which are clunky, unrealistic or serve no purpose. For instance, in the first episode, there's a bizarre scene where David Tennant and the Chief Superintendent stand around on a pier eating soft serve ice creams for some reason. People regularly meet up in the most picturesque location possible only to tell each other that they need to go somewhere else. At the start of one episode David Tennant experiences a somewhat pointless dream sequence where he's yelling at several suspects standing on the shore. The direction also has a tendency to employ heavy slow motion to exaggerate moments of suspense and pathos, which was particularly flawed in the finale when it was used to drag out the revelation of a killer whose identity had become staggeringly obvious by the end. There's also this stupid sub plot involving a guy who claims to get psychic messages who seems to be afforded way too much attention in such a notionally realistic drama. I never understood why David Tennant didn't just throw him out of the police station after he first mentioned it. It's a few schlocky moments like these which occasionally let the story down a bit.
I did, however, find Broadchurch a decent watch. The mystery of the town's inhabitants did keep me going, and especially, of course, the mystery of the killer's identity, which takes several twists and turns even if they do end up almost always just involving someone obfuscating the truth to disguise some other, unrelated obscenity in their own past. The performances are generally strong, particularly from Tennant and Colman. I found Tennant especially watchable, in fact, and found his portrayal of the relentlessly dour, blunt and brooding DI Harding to be a welcome relief from my mental image of him running around and gurning like a maniac. Olivia Colman's good too, especially when the character is forced to confront some rather serious revelations at the series' conclusion, and the rappor between Tennant and Colman is strong. The other townsfolk all get the job done, with special mention worth being afforded to the family of the murdered boy who do a pretty convincing job of conveying the shock and grief one would expect to be associated with this situation. An extra special mention must of course be given to the ever-reliable Arthur Darvill as the vicar, who brings a standard dose of comedy awkwardness mixed with a portrayal of unexpected conviction and strength of character.
I suppose now the question is: would I watch the inevitable second series of Brudcharch? The answer to that question at present is yes, as long as it still had David Tennant in it, as unbelievable as those words seem, and preferably the Tennant-Colman dynamic without too much baggage. There's a weird moment in the series where David Tennant tries incredibly ineptly to proposition his hotelier and to my immense relief she turns him down. Writers need to understand that I, the viewer, immediately lose all empathy for these kinds of mysterious solitary protagonists as soon as they start getting their ends away. Chibnall dodged the bullet there. Keep Tennant as a guy whose main concern is the job. So yeah. That's Broadchurch for you. Not the most amazing TV I've ever seen but I've watched much worse, and especially from this writer and some of these actors too. If you don't mind a bit of character-driven detective drama, can handle some incredibly uncomfortable taboo storyline elements usually involving children and underage goings-on and don't mind a show where, in spite of the aforementioned story, on-screen there's no sex and very little violence, it might be your cup of tea. I really think this actually explains a good deal of why I enjoyed it. I did think it was trying really hard to make me cry at a few points (good luck with that) but exploitative slow motion and music aside it didn't muck about with pointless titillation. So to sum up, Broadchurch helped to remedy my mental image of David Tennant as an actor, and that's probably a good thing.

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