Having neglected the British whodunit “Broadchurch” until now, after seeing the light I’ve become an evangelist. Created and written by Chris Chibnall, it first appears to be another twisted mystery along the lines of “True Detective” or “The Killing,” hewing to expectation: unsettling crime, “everyone’s a suspect” plot, small-town setting, overworked investigators, grieving families. And yet the series slowly turns the screw of convention, emerging as a richer, more humane portrait of communal trauma than its televisual kin. “Broadchurch” is simply extraordinary.
From the outset, as plumber Mark Latimer (Andrew Buchan) makes his way through the English seaside hamlet of Broadchurch one fine, bright morning, the series constructs a remarkably precise sense of place. By the end of the eight-episode arc I felt as if I could draw the fictional town on a map, pockmarked with personal histories from the top of the High Street to the edge of the cliffs, and it’s this understanding that where we live is tightly woven into who we are that lends “Broadchurch” its haunting intimacy. “Maggie says we celebrate the everyday,” ambitious cub reporter Olly Stevens (Jonathan Bailey) says of his editor at the local paper, but as the case of a young boy’s murder unfurls a host of revelations, “the everyday” seems increasingly troubled. “Broadchurch” treats the placid surface of village life like an itch, scratching and scratching until it bleeds.
The cast is uniformly excellent, but it’s the bristling tension between Det. Sergeant Ellie Miller (the brilliant Olivia Colman) and her new boss, Det. Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant), that propels the narrative toward its shattering conclusion. As with nearly everything in “Broadchurch,” their relationship is built from stock material, only to transform, over time, into something far more complicatedly alive. She’s warm and empathic where he’s cold and analytical; she lives happily with her husband, Tom (Matthew Gravelle), and their two children, while he’s an inveterate loner with a shadowy past. But “Broadchurch” acknowledges the rules of the game — “You can keep your broody, bullshit shtick to yourself,” she tells him — in order to circumvent them, and their partnership blossoms beyond the grudging respect of the average police procedural. There’s a sly humor to it that suggests the ungainly work of friendship, and by the end of the season it’s clear that we never quite knew either of them in the first place.
In essence, this is what distinguishes “Broadchurch,” marching toward resolution as surely as the score’s fearful percussion, from the other series of its ilk: the notion that the ordinary is ultimately as unknowable as any occult system, as corrupt as any nefarious plot. Each of the suspects is cleared not by forensic science but by the stories they tell — about past crimes, former husbands, secret affairs. That’s why “Broadchurch” is a richer, more humane series than its televisual kin, for it recognizes that the very act of living leaves us all with nooks and crannies that even those with whom we “celebrate the everyday” can never enter.
“Broadchurch,” then, is a marvel of execution, a common tale told uncommonly well. By contrast, Fox’s “Gracepoint” (also created and written by Chibnall), which transports the British original to the coast of Northern California, is an ersatz affair, “Broadchurch” for dummies. It’s not a shot-for-shot, line-for-line copy, but the narrative changes mostly register as distinctions without a difference. Indeed, if you’re a fan of “Broadchurch,” “Gracepoint” is practically poisonous. Even the cliffs are less dramatic.
Tennant is back as the brusque out-of-towner, this time with a new name, an American accent, and the appearance of being bored to death, but the rest of the cast has been replaced. Michael Peña steps in as the boy’s father, Mark Solano, and Anna Gunn is given the unenviable task of reprising Olivia Colman’s role as Ellie Miller. Both are capable of tremendous work (Gunn won two well-deserved Emmys for “Breaking Bad,” and Peña’s performance in “End of Watch” is one of my favorite bits of screen acting in recent memory), but neither manages to transcend the artificiality of the writing. Colman’s reproach of Tennant’s demeanor becomes, for Gunn, “You can keep your brooding, ass-aholic, big-city-cop act to yourself!” Meryl Streep couldn’t make that line ring true.
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element,” German critic Walter Benjamin wrote in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” “[I]ts presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be.” Benjamin called this element of the original artifact its “aura,” an apt term for the vast gulf between “Broadchurch” and “Gracepoint.” To call the latter a remake is to give it too much credit, for at best it’s a spotty, faint facsimile, affirming every cliché about stupid American viewers and risk-averse networks. “Celebrating the everyday” isn’t an offhand remark but the local newspaper’s official motto, painted on the Gracepoint Journal’s window as if to say, “We’re just a normal town, get it? GET IT?!”
In the totality of its failure, “Gracepoint” succeeds in illustrating the inexplicable alchemy involved in collaborative art forms like television. Its paint-by-numbers imitation of “Broadchurch” only heightens the sense that the original’s brilliance emerged from the particular magic of its constituent parts, from its deeply sympathetic portrait of the place where it happened to be. This is, perhaps, how Benjamin might have defined “aura” had he lived to write about television, and it’s a phenomenon Fox’s mechanical reproduction willfully abandons. “Gracepoint” ultimately resists any attempt to explain why it exists. As a creative (as opposed to financial) gambit, it’s not just poorly conceived. It’s inconceivable.
“Gracepoint” premieres Thursday at 9pm on FOX. “Broadchurch,” slated to return for its second season in 2015, is available on iTunes and Amazon Video.