The morning after screening the first four episodes of the sophomore season of “Broadchurch,” I noted my initial impressions on Twitter, an assessment of which I am only more convinced after a few days of reflection. “Review: ‘Broadchurch,’ Season Two,” I wrote. “Kill it. Kill it with fire.” Having spent the five months since I reviewed the extraordinary first season praising the small-town mystery to everyone who would listen, a bit of hyperbole seems only fair: shunning the unassuming precision of its debut for high dudgeon and overwrought dramatics, the crime drama, which returns to BBC America Wednesday, is now but a shell of its former self.
The new season courts the danger of high expectations from the opening minutes, setting the table for the trial of accused child molester and murderer Joe Miller (Matthew Gravelle) with a superb, fleet-footed sequence that finds the residents of the titular coastal village reunited for Miller’s arraignment. The stricken faces of Joe’s wife, Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), and the dead boy’s mother, Beth (Jodie Whittaker), and father, Mark (Andrew Buchan), suggest the same forceful emotion that propelled the initial investigation, but all the craning camerawork and foreboding music in the world cannot sustain this high-wire act for long. “Broadchurch,” once imbued with the intimate rhythms of a troubled community, now strives for the operatic, and in so doing loses the detailed sense of place that made the series great in the first place.
Indeed, as the trial proceeds, with retired barrister Jocelyn Knight (Charlotte Rampling) goaded into prosecuting Joe so the townspeople can “move on” and the combative Sharon Bishop (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) taking up his high-profile defense, “Broadchurch” comes to rely on the sort of bland psychologizing that is the genre’s unfortunate stock-in-trade. We learn more about Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant), whose last, failed case spurred his transfer to Broadchurch, and the specter of Joe’s own acquittal hangs over each new development, but the idea that grief might not simply pass into memory at the moment a killer is convicted goes more or less unexamined—which even Det. Miller admits is naive. “I thought [Joe] would plead guilty, he’d get sentenced, and then it’d be done,” she tells her therapist. “And then in a few weeks or months I could go back to my home, to Broadchurch, and then I could cope with all the glances and the stares because justice would have been done and he wouldn’t be coming back.”
Colman succeeds in roughing up the otherwise flat sheen of shouty courtroom set pieces and whispered secrets, playing the guilt-ridden detective with a deft blend of mourning for her ruined life and dark, desperate humor, as when she refuses a hug from Det. Hardy in the season premiere. The finest scene in the first four episodes is her own spellbinding moment on the stand, run through with hushed honesty—she gives testimony in the trial, yes, but more than that she confesses her own culpability, her blindness to her husband’s inner life. “It’s horrific,” she says matter-of-factly, and it’s the truth.
To the series’ discredit, however, it’s only when Colman’s on screen that “Broadchurch” wrings this sense of genuine feeling from the narrative, which turns to one ghastly contrivance after another in an attempt to keep the tension at fever pitch. Newborns, aging parents, ex-wives, endangered witnesses, and enigmatic neighbors quickly pile up, crushing the delicate construction of the town’s interlocking relationships with background material that doesn’t deepen our understanding of the trauma so much as cast it in stone; the majority of the courtroom sequences sweep away the final dregs of realism so Bishop can berate each witness into inadvertently supporting Joe Miller’s defense.
In the end, then, “Broadchurch” has assumed a foreordained quality that the first season, despite its familiar everyone’s-a-suspect premise, ably resisted, and the lively complications of the communal secrets unearthed by an unspeakable crime become grist for a risibly obvious narrative. “You can keep your broody, bullshit shtick to yourself,” Det. Miller told her partner last season, with a sly self-awareness of the genre’s pitfalls, but in the glare of critical acclaim—or perhaps distracted by the making of Fox’s dreadful “Gracepoint”—creator and lead writer Chris Chibnall seems unable to see that he’s set his own trap. The core of the series’ appeal was once the way it twisted convention to its own ends, but now “Broadchurch” is just a series of twists, so contorted it’s almost unrecognizable.
“Broadchurch” premieres Wednesday, March 4 at 10pm on BBC America.