Ever since Downton Abbey became a word-of-mouth hit, the television industry has been on the lookout for the next British import to strike a chord with American audiences. Though on the surface it bears little resemblance to everyone’s favorite period drama, ITV’s modern murder mystery, Broadchurch, seems poised to fit the bill.
Like Downton, Broadchurch, which BBC America began airing here on Aug. 7, debuted to record-breaking ratings in the U.K., going on to become a national phenomenon. Also like Downton, the show has received lavish praise from U.S. critics. At Metacritc.com, a site that averages television reviews from major news outlets, Broadchurch earns a 91 out of 100 and is currently their highest-rated new series (Downton’s first season scored a 92). And while the setting and storylines are nothing alike, one further similarity Downton and Broadchurch share—sharply written characters coupled with phenomenal acting.
Though there isn’t a bad performance in the bunch, particularly impressive are leads Olivia Colman and David Tennant as a pair of detectives charged with finding the killer of an 11-year-old boy in a small, coastal town. As a local, Ellie can’t help her reluctance to believe any of her neighbors could be guilty of this heinous crime. As an outsider and jaded veteran, Alec can’t help feeling suspicious of everyone he meets, however innocent they might seem.
Without question, their investigation delves into the darkest elements of fallen human nature. Yet by the standards of other currently trendy dramas like Homeland, Breaking Bad, or Under the Dome, with the exception of profanity, Broadchurch’s content is mild, featuring little violence and only one brief, nonexplicit bedroom scene in its first season.
Though the show centers on the lives of some decidedly unsavory characters, viewers are rarely subjected to depictions of their unsavory behavior. One episode of the eight-part whodunit, for example, reveals that a married character is having an affair. Yet the only evidence we see of it is a kiss. Instead, Broadchurch invests its screen time on the consequences of the man’s actions. Confronted with his wife’s heartbreak and his daughter’s disrespect, he comes to see that what seemed like valid justifications for cheating were really the cheapest, most contemptible kind of selfishness.
Far from being less gripping for its reserve, Broadchurch’s constant focus on the fallout of sinful choices rather than sin itself makes it far more true-to-life than many “gritty” dramas praised for their realism. After all, the pain of wickedness usually lasts exponentially longer than the pleasure, though TV producers tend to show the inverse.
This isn’t to suggest that Broadchurch skimps on the details. The show operates as a sort of firsthand, behind-the-scenes look at the tabloid cases that dominate our news cycles. From the devastated family, to the journalists who sensationalize the crimes, to the public who sit in stone-throwing judgment before all the facts are revealed, the show puts hearts and faces to an all too familiar spectacle and challenges us to reconsider how we view such stories.
At times, the revelations Ellie and Alec turn up are painful—gut-wrenching even—to watch, but they also exemplify the increasingly mundane evil we encounter every day. And even on this front, Broadchurch excels, not merely painting our common despair, but also offering a glimpse of hope. A minor, silly subplot involving a psychic notwithstanding, Christian faith is treated with more than respect; it’s treated with seriousness. The fledgling town reverend, though a suspect like everyone else, is the person the grieving parents turn to for wisdom and comfort. Most shocking of all for mainstream entertainment, after some initial flailing, he actually manages to supply it.
Fox has already determined the potential of Broadchurch with U.S. audiences, entering into a deal to produce an American adaptation for the 2014-15 television season. Here’s hoping the network sticks to the British version’s reflective, restrained style. In case it doesn’t, for those who can overlook the language and are willing to engage with distressing-but- truthful subject matter, I recommend the original as a rare, only somewhat tarnished gem in a garbage-littered landscape.