Part of me wonders how television would be affected if suddenly the simplest answer became preferable to the most complicated one, at least in the crime genre.
Hear me out. So many crime stories are about detectives uncovering massive conspiracies and realizing that the most innocent-seeming person actually hides a monster inside. While that’s sometimes interesting from a plot perspective, it rarely sheds new light on characters, and at this point it’s become such a frequent plot device that I’m not sure it even qualifies as a twist anymore. I find myself wondering what a series would be like if the perpetrator of a crime was caught early on, it was exactly who the police first expected, and the rest of the show just focused on the fallout.
Broadchurch seems trapped between a desire to bring a more character and theme-focused approach to a murder mystery and the demands of modern television audiences. We’ve become so accustomed to seeing crime dramas unfold a certain way that we tend to demand new series do something different, but when we say “different” we really just mean “the same” but darker, twistier, with new characters in a new place. It looks like variety on the surface, but it’s really just the same product with different packaging.
The fourth episode of Broadchurch was a bit of a let-down for me, because it saw a change in focus from the characters and their relationships to the ongoing murder investigation, with new reveals about who the killer could be trumping anything that might make it matter. Honestly, I don’t care who killed Danny as much as I care about why and how the murder is affecting this community. Whenever the show just seems interested in creating new suspects, I zone out. Of course most of the characters, killers or not, will be hiding something. Stop telling me what I already know and show me why I should care.
There is one scene in this episode that stands out: Detective Hardy going to Miller’s house for dinner. It’s a delightfully awkward sequence brimming with great character moments, from Hardy bringing flowers, wine and chocolate (now that’s a party!) to he and Joe sharing a laugh during a moment alone. It’s scenes like this where Broadchurch shines—I’m far more interested in Hardy’s efforts to find connection and forgive himself than I am in who killed Danny Latimer. Of course, given how series like this typically work, this now raises my suspicion of Joe Miller, somebody who’s never been shown doing anything out of the ordinary. He provides Hardy’s first real moment of human connection with someone in town, and if there’s anything I’ve learned from watching movies and television, it’s that the supposed good guy is often the actual bad guy. I’m not sure how I’ll feel if Joe is revealed to have dark secrets—it all depends on the execution—but I’m going to go ahead and plant my flag in the “if he doesn’t seem like the killer he probably is” camp.
There aren’t many other characters I see being largely under-developed so that they can be the “surprise” twist later. We’re at the halfway point of the season, and I think it’s safe to say that nobody we’re supposed to think is the killer is actually the culprit. It’s certainly not newsagent shop owner Jack Marshall, even though he was previously jailed for sexually assaulting a minor. Maybe it’s just the strength of David Bradley’s performance, but I believe him when he says he’s changed and that he moved to Broadchurch to start a new life. Detective Hardy could relate—how many other people are really just here to escape their past?
Nigel and Susan are up to something—she’s got Danny’s skateboard, he has a van full of weapons, and they clearly share a secret—but I don’t think either of them is the killer (though they may know more than they let on). They’ve obviously done something they don’t want anyone to know about, but I think it’s too easy to say they murdered Danny. The way it’s presented, with the audience realizing something’s up before the police do, screams that it’s a red herring. As intriguingly as Broadchurch is handling the depiction of grief as it affects a community, the murder mystery still seems to be conforming to the basic rules of television drama, meaning that the simplest answer is probably not the right one.
That’s what has me worried moving into the second half of the season. Up until now, Broadchurch has differentiated itself from other shows of this ilk by being willing to step away from the details of the murder to explore its effects on people’s lives and relationships. While I have nothing against a good crime drama, every time we’re presented with another (probably false) lead or it’s revealed that someone is acting suspicious, my interest wanes. That’s why I found the first episode pretty unremarkable, while the second and third episodes improved things tremendously. Now we’re back to familiar genre tropes. In ninety-nine percent of drama, character trumps plot. We’ve seen enough mysteries to know the structural beats; Broadchurch is best when it’s marching to a different drum.