As the success of BBC’s Sherlock proves, Americans can’t get enough British TV. Other series from across the pond that are gaining traction from U.S. viewers are Downton Abbey, Luther, Call the Midwife, and most recently, Broadchurch. These shows not only have high quality acting, but are actually “about” something — you know, like themes and stuff. Aside from generally being awesome, most British shows benefit from shorter seasons (“series” in the U.K. – I know, confusing). Having fewer episodes means less filler and tighter storytelling. This is in stark contrast to the bloated American TV schedules where shows are drawn out over 22-24 episodes per year. This may tell us something about us Americans – we apparently prefer quantity over quality (Super-size that, please?). However, not all Americans are zoned out every week watching procedural “dramas” like NCIS or escapist trash like The Bachelor. More and more Americans are yearning after higher quality television (Breaking Bad, for instance) and leaving the major networks for cable.
Though technically a year old, one British show that should be on your radar is BBC’s Broadchurch. Let me just say it right now: this was the best murder-mystery show on television (admittedly, I have yet to watch True Detective). With only eight tense episodes, Broadchurch covers more ground than most series do in their entire run. It’s a favorite to win the BAFTA for television drama and FOX is already planning an American adaptation starting David Tennant (again) and Ann Gunn of Breaking Bad fame.
Here are the basics: An eleven-year-old boy goes missing in the small, seaside town of Broadchurch, prompting an investigation where everyone is a suspect. The murder inquiry is helmed by a recent pariah of British law enforcement (David Tennant, the 10th Doctor Who) and his partner, a town local. I’m fighting the temptation to reveal too much, so that’s all I will say about the plot.
In regards to acting, the performances are top-notch. All characters are believable, fleshed-out, and compelling. Viewers soon find out that there are forces bubbling under the surface of the seaside town, threatening to be revealed. Each character wrestles with his or her personal demons, highlighting the need for grace, and going beyond the riddle to be solved. David Tennant and Olivia Coleman have a brilliant, not-so-“buddy cop” dynamic that is realistic and revealing. Tennant’s role as the outsider gives him a different set of eyes to view everyone in town, challenging Coleman’s character to look past her assumptions and biases. In fact, the comparison between those assumptions and the facts presented orchestrates the central tension of the show. Furthermore, the media’s effect on the town is enlightening and illuminates the fact that humans are really just “sheeple,” following directions, being told who to love and who to hate. The show exposes the farce of sensational journalism and how easily influenced we are.
Modern TV almost universally pretends churches don’t exist. If anything, they exist as punching bags and punch lines for bigotry, molestation, and sentimentalism. Broadchurch is a refreshing, honest exception. The show attempts to present the reality of a small town as it is, rather than try to pretend that churches are either absent or sinister. Characters go to the town parish to mourn, to seek, to confess… all with a rookie pastor who is passionate about his vocation, but lacks the confidence to shepherd effectively. Despite this fact, the tone of Broadchurch never delves into a half-baked critique of the church and displays positive rendering of the church’s influence. While not exactly gospel-centered, Broadchurch still gives much-needed space to the role of the church within a community that I don’t think has ever been fully realized in a TV drama. By the end of the series, the title takes on a whole new meaning aside from the name of the setting.
In addition to the whodunnit itself, the drama mainly concerns itself with issues of trust: How well can you ever know someone? Whom can you trust? Obviously, I won’t reveal the secret of the show here. But as believers, it is important to know we never have to deal with these questions with our King, Jesus. Jesus is the truer and greater neighbor, the One who saw our guilt and was punished in our place. We don’t need a television show to point us to this; however, art can help make the transcendent more imminent. Bringing heaven to earth, good art models truth in an affective and concrete way to which our hearts are tuned (more on this in a future article).
If you’re looking for a gripping show that masterfully explores what it means to love one’s neighbor, then I highly recommend BBC’s Broadchurch. Clearly, American TV drama needs to look to our cousin from across the sea “to pull up one’s socks” and retire our “knackered” excuse for storytelling.
Where to watch: iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Instant, and Google Play. An American adaptation is on the way produced by FOX, titled Gracepoint.