Sunday, September 22, 2013

Oh Broadchurch--Why Do You Disappoint Me So?

I started watching this series because I was promised so much. Culture commentators that I generally trust recommended this. Viewing figures from the UK indicated that this was a much-beloved series. A second series was ordered even before the first series had completed its run here in the US.

Sure, I had my doubts. Chris Chibnall has (in my experience, which does NOT include Life On Mars which I have not watched) a tendency to bite off more than he can chew. The ideas are clever, the execution feels thin. David Tennant was delightful as The Doctor, but his Hamlet with the RSC was not something I will voluntarily subject myself to a second time.

But--the general acclaim! What could it hurt, right? Good tv, done well--worth a shot to be part of the ongoing cultural conversation.

Sure! As long as I don't mind being disappointed. And I am. Because--seriously? This is as good as we expect from BBC?

The idea that a murder is more than just a whodunnit is not new, but it doesn't have to be. The idea is that the murder is just a catalyst, the reason why we are looking behind closed doors and rifling through people's lives. Police are charged with solving the case, and so we have permission to pry into people's secrets--permission that is not generally given. It's rude, right? When you have to live with people, you let them have their quirks, their personal space, so even if you think you know everybody in your small seaside town, you only know what they have chosen to reveal about themselves.

And you accept that--because too much unvarnished knowledge makes it hard to keep going. So when an eleven year old boy is found dead on the beach, there is a fundamental communal need to expose the secrets that will uncover the perpetrator. The detectives conducting the investigation are the audience's guide through the shifting realities--the way things were before and the way they are now, afterwards.

Broadchurch attempts to walk the thin line between whodunnit--which puts solving the crime at the forefront of the plot--and a sensitive examination of the ways a murder ripples through a community and affects those around it. Perhaps I should be happy that it attempts the latter at all, and not be so disappointed that it doesn't do it well.

The trouble is, that it doesn't do either of those things well--the search for the killer is not done well, precisely because the procedural elements run smack into the emotional chaos, and both are derailed.

Let's look at this a little more closely, shall we?

In a previous installment--possibly episode 6, from just over a week ago, Our Intrepid DI Alec Hardy (played by David Tennant as a support system for the emotionally complicated neck-beard that defines the character)

has apparently spun the Big Wheel of Suspects and landed on the local vicar.

I say the "Big Wheel of Suspects," because there isn't anything that indicates why the vicar is suddenly the subject of extra scrutiny. Perhaps DI Hardy was alone in his hotel room watching old reruns of The Vicar of Dibley and had a sudden brainstorm?

In any event, he decides that the vicar wants watching, so he tails him to a nearby town where the poor man attends AA meetings. The next morning, DI Hardy corrals DS Miller and they go to confront the vicar in the churchyard. The questioning quickly becomes hostile.

DI Hardy: Why didn't you tell us you go to AA meetings?

Vicar: Because it has no possible bearing on your murder investigation?

DI Hardy: serious side-eye and attempts to look threatening, which fail, because AA meetings have NO POSSIBLE BEARING on the murder investigation.

Because--you know what? The vicar is right. None of the questions Hardy and Miller had asked him had any connection to AA. Why does he keep it secret? Possibly because his ability to do his job might be undermined by the information that he is a recovering alcoholic. Is there anything--ANYTHING--that ties AA meetings to the murder, other than the fact that he hadn't volunteered that he's a recovering alcoholic?

No. There isn't.

Just think all the irrelevant information he could have offered that also has no bearing on the murder investigation. Since apparently DI Hardy gets his knickers in a twist over information that isn't volunteered.

  • He saved money on his car insurance by switching to Geico. 
  • He is choosy about his peanut butter and prefers Jif.
  • He wears boxers, and occasionally irons them.
  • He prefers stuffing over potatoes, every time!
  • Watches cricket, not football.
  • His password on his laptop is either "pasta" or "pizza"--he switches back and forth.
  • He wears short sleeved undershirts under all his dress shirts.
  • Sir dresses to the left.
And this is where the substructure of the series not only shows, but it starts to interfere with my ability to take any of this seriously. Because as the exchange between Hardy and the Vicar indicates, the point of this show is to ferret out everybody's secrets for the sake of demonstrating that everybody has secrets. Then, apparently, there is a limit? No one may have more than one secret? And once that secret has been found out, that removes them from suspicion of murder, because of the Law of Conservation Of Plot? 

The vicar is a recovering alcoholic, so he can't also be a murderer. The local Sea Scout leader was a convicted sex offender a million years ago, and he committed suicide, so he's been cleared of murder. (He wasn't actually cleared either--they just stopped looking at him as a suspect.) Susan Wright, the cleaning lady who had the keys to the murder site, who had possession of the dead boy's skateboard, who has been living under an assumed name, who is vaguely threatening and creepy generally--has a sad backstory involving a husband who molested both their daughters and then implicated her. CPS labeled her an "unfit mother" and took her newborn away--who grew up to be the bald plumber's assistant Nige.

Well, she wouldn't have told that story if it wasn't true, would she? And if it was true, then she can't be the murderer, because her story came out in episode 7 of an 8 episode series. So we don't bother to check if any of her claims are true, even after Nige tells them "I didn't even know I was adopted!" Why check up on any of her story? She gave up her secret, which apparently disqualifies her from being the murderer.

There are some exceptions--Jody Whittaker's turn as the boy's mother has always been exceptional. She is broken, and her interview with the mother of another murdered child was bleak. The other mother lives in a twilight world of drink and sleep, the marriage fell apart, and she just passes the hours hoping to evade the pain. Beth was looking for hope, for a way to move out of her stasis, and this stunned her.

She remains unable to deal with her own surprise pregnancy--she can't either embrace it or reject it. She can't go forward, because she wants to go back to when her boy was still alive. 

If the series had focused on that sort of sorrow and pain--and stayed away from trying to tug our heartstrings with DI Hardy and his man pain, it would have been stronger. As it is, it is turning into a series of emotionally manipulative set pieces, strung together with too little else. It's like old fashioned opera, where the divas would simply stand center stage during their arias--it's called "Park and Bark" and that's what the citizens of Broadchurch are mostly doing. They each have their own secret, they reveal it to the jaded detectives, and then they disappear from the investigation. 

I expected much better than this.


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