Thursday, September 26, 2013

Oh, Broadchurch--Finale Review


Look--I like where this show was pointing its attention. It wasn't all about the mad, bad, and dangerous to know DI with his manpain and his neckbeard of sorrow. It wasn't a thrill ride about who dunnit and how is he going to get caught. There were exactly zero car chases and nobody ran away from a fireball. (All of which we can expect to see in the American remake, if there is one.)

The point of the series was to look at the people who get overlooked in murder dramas: the grieving parents, the lost sibling, the family of the culprit, the effect of suspicion on the suspects who turn out not to be guilty.

I just wish it had done all this better. In a series that was gorgeously shot, it never quite raised its game to the same level. It looked like an "A" movie while working generally at a "B-" level. Like a student who isn't working to his potential, it is frustrating for what it could have been, if it had just put in the effort.

Of course the murderer was Joe Miller. Operating on the Agatha Christie Principle of the "least likely person is the one who did it," it had to be Joe Miller, because he was one of only two recurring characters who had not been a suspect yet. The other? Danny Latimer's grandmother, of course.

(Could it possibly have been the grandmother? Well, she did give up DNA and fingerprint evidence in the first episode to be used to disqualify her as a suspect, along with the other members of the family. That could have been a brilliant double fake--but it wasn't.)

It was bloody obvious by last week, however. There was Susan Wright's identification of her estranged son Nige as present at the beach. But it wasn't Nige, it was the other skinny, pale, bald man in town. More unforgivable was the hamhanded scene in which DS Miller confronts Susan Wright about her ignorance of her husband's sexual abuse of their daughters. "How could you have not known? How could you live in that house and not have known?"

Nobody gets to say something like that without having it thrown back into their teeth. DS Miller claims that she didn't know about Joe--either at the time he was secretly meeting with Danny, or during the investigation.

(Beth Latimer comes out of her house to accuse her former friend of the same thing--"How could you not know?" So keep an eye on the Latimer household for unsavory goings on in the second series of Broadchurch, already ordered.)

Again, the problem was with the writing. The whole "he's not really a pedophile, he just likes hugging a boy" is odd in the extreme. The "accidental" nature of the murder is also weird--Danny said they couldn't meet like that again, and Joe got so worked up, trying to get Danny to listen to him, that he strangled the boy before he noticed what he was doing? It doesn't make any sense to me, and lampshading it inside the drama doesn't really correct the problem. DI Hardy probes for details, saying "I need to understand." Joe lashes back at him "If I don't understand it, why should you?"

Ellie Miller also gropes for understanding using very similar language, and she asks Hardy if her husband can be considered a pedophile if he never actually molested anybody. If not, what is he? "Why do you need to categorize him?" Hardy asks. "Because I need to understand" she says.

I'm not sure that the mystery qualifies as "satisfying" if the whole motive thing is baffling to both the audience and the characters themselves.

Can we talk about some of the pacing as well? Hardy has to tell Miller that her husband is the culprit. He interrupts her interrogation of Nige, terminates the proceeding and dismisses everybody. She should be furious, but she's not. Why? He starts to ask her questions about the night Danny Latimer was killed, and she feels like he suspects her. But she puts up with it patiently, again, not too believably. But seconds--seconds--after she learns it's Joe, she's crouched in a corner of the room, heaving.

It's just too fast. Like Nige sobbing over newspaper clippings from last week--about the tragic story of a bunch of people he never knew existed, it's just emotional spectacle without the proper set up. Why would Miller believe Hardy? Especially over her own experience with Joe? Why wouldn't she deny it longer?

To her credit--Olivia Coleman really sold the heck out of Ellie Miller's devastation. The scene where she confronts her husband in the interrogation room, and loses it--very believable. The way she kicked at him, even as a uniformed officer was dragging her away--that felt like hysteria. That was the manifestation of her emotional turmoil, and the way she had to believe that he had done it.

The problem was never the acting, and if Olivia Coleman takes home all the awards next season, she will have earned them. The problem is that the story itself is too linear, too determined, to be engaging on its own. Once a suspect was "cleared," they never resurfaced as a possibility again. The victim's father, Mark, was dodgy about his whereabouts the night his son was killed. Extremely dodgy. It turns out that he was off having an affair--and keeping that secret was more important to him than finding his son's murderer? Really? I mean, once the Keystone Kops got him to admit to the affair, let let him go and he was never on their radar again.

Shouldn't he have been? I mean, if he had killed his son, wouldn't an affair be the kind of alibi you would arrange for yourself? If he did kill his son, maybe he would have arranged it so that his affair was his alibi--but the detectives never looked very closely at it. They never really tried to figure out if he could have done both--they took him at his word that he didn't, they didn't scrutinize his alibi, they didn't try to find any inconsistencies in his story--that would have been a compelling story to tell about  the effect that murder has on a family. Not only did they lose their child, but the stress of having the husband be suspected--by the police, by the rest of the family--could have been searing. Much more powerful than the pathetic minor rudeness of Beth having to order a drink from Becca.

But the show kept turning away from those kind of tensions, in favor of--what exactly?

That's the question. What was the engine that drove this series? The police work was subpar, the secrets  that were revealed weren't rooted in characters we cared about, because most of the characters weren't given enough dimension for us to really care about them. For example--what did we know about Susan Wright before we heard her sob story? She was creepy, and threatening, so she was a great suspect, but she wasn't somebody we actually cared about.

And in the absense of characters we care about, the secrets have to stand on their own as compelling plot devices, and most of them were frankly--not. The Rev. Paul Coates goes to AA? Seriously? That was it? Mark Latimer is having a tawdry midlife affair with the hotel owner? Predictable, basically. Nige was adopted?

What if they had abandoned all this serial suspect finding, and went deep into the broken Latimer family. Daughter Chloe has a drug dealing boyfriend, and is under the age of consent. He's kind of dodgy, but he's giving her some semblance of stability in the face of the murder. Beth and Mark invite him to dinner--which would certainly have been the source of some real conflict between them (and within each of them). Surely, the awkwardness where he offers a present for the new baby was far from the most powerful moment that would have happened in this crucible.

And let's talk more about that ending. How did our police duo figure out who the murderer was? Was there clever assembly of disparate information gathered over the previous seven weeks of investigation?

Of course not.

Basically, the perp all but called in his location. He turned on Danny Latimer's phone, and then stood in place and waited for DI Hardy and his neckbeard to follow the turn-by-turn directions on his phone. When he reached Joe Miller standing in a backyard shed, Joe admitted to the crime. "I was tired of hiding."

Let's just say if I was Hardy's boss, I would be pissed. All those cops, all those weeks of major staff expenditures and new phone lines and conventional policing--turned up nothing. They might as well have just sat around and waited for Joe to give himself up. The two weeks of angst around the budget cuts and the loss of the additional staff--didn't mean anything at all, because as far as we can tell, they didn't do anything to forward the investigation.

And what was the deal with the psychic telephone installer? What did he add at all to the story? Are we supposed to think he was actually channeling information? If so, if he really was getting messages from Danny--why didn't Danny give him better hints? "It's someone you know" is hardly helpful, nor is it unusual, since statistically that is true of all murders. So, was he just a creep trying to insert himself into a drama? Was he a goad to DI Hardy? The story never told us, just left him hanging around on the periphery, with no plot purpose or resolution. Are we supposed to believe in the supernatural? Or just believe that somebody does? Does it give Beth any comfort--or does it make her feel used? We don't know, because it's not in the writing at all.

I went online and looked at reviews of the finale both here and in the UK, and as far as I can tell, part of the  excitement was the cultural conversation around the role the media played, in light of the recent phone hacking scandal, and possibly the attempt to figure out the murderer as well. And when there is a lot of conversation, it makes the show loom larger and take on more cultural weight. We just didn't have that here, for whatever reason, and without that the thinness of the plot was just too obvious. Maybe it was the fact that this happened in the summer, or that it was yet another limited episode murder mystery series and that conversation had been exhausted by The Killing, The Bridge, Top of the Lake,  and even the non-murder limited series House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black.

Which makes me wonder if this is a series that I would have liked better if it had been released in the all-at-once Netflix model. If I could have immersed myself into the world, without commercials (and without the cuts BBC America made to get those ads in and keep it a tidy hour long show), for as  long as I could. I might well have watched the whole thing over a weekend rather than dragged out over eight weeks, which game me too much time to pick at its inconsistencies and its flaws. Had I been binging, I might have felt more like I was really in Broadchurch, and I might have invested more of myself into the characters than I did.

I might have cared. As it was, the series was less about Broadchurch as a community, and ultimately was about the destruction of Ellie Miller and her innoncence. She started the series believing that her greatest disappointment was that she didn't get the promotion she was promised. She ended the series destroyed emotionally, believing that she could no longer even do her job, with her family and friendships in shreds around her. "I know that boy" she said in the first hour. By the final hour, she felt she didn't know anybody, including herself.

ITV has announced that there will be a second series, that will be a different story. If I were asked to predict what that story would be--I would go with the re-construction of Ellie Miller. She's got to hit bottom, and then pull herself together, because she has two children she has to raise, and she's got to figure out how she is going to move forward into the rest of her life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Felt the same way, Cate. Appreciate your review.