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‘Gracepoint’ and the ‘Broadchurch’ Conundrum

'Gracepoint' and the 'Broadchurch' Conundrum

The producers of Fox’s “Gracepoint,” a 10-part murder mystery set in a small California town, estimate that the audience for “Broadchurch,” the BBC America show on which “Gracepoint” is very faithfully based, was less than 1 percent of the U.S. viewing audience. Unfortunately for “Gracepoint,” that 1 percent includes virtually every TV critic reviewing the new show, and nearly all of them find it lacking by comparison.

Is that a fair comparison, though? Or, more to the point, are critics serving their readers by them against each other, given that “Gracepoint’s” first episode will likely be seen by more people than have ever watched, or even heard of, “Broadchurch”? 

The New York Times’ Neil Genzlinger has one answer: “The universe of viewers who saw ‘Broadchurch’ and will watch ‘Gracepoint’ is fairly small and, anyway, if you have enough spare time to sit through the same story twice to compare nuances and accents and plot variations, you are to be pitied.” And while it would be nice to see a Times critic advance a more sophisticated argument than “Shut up, nerds,” it’s worth wondering how much, if any, overlap, the two shows’ audiences will overlap.

Chances are, a good chunk of “Broadchurch’s” audience — including but not limited to those with wicked crushes on David Tennant, who reprises his role as a disgraced detective, albeit with a different name and an American accent — will tune in to see how “Gracepoint” adapts “Broadchurch’s” story of an English seaside town to the environment of the California coast. And what they’ll find is that it pretty much doesn’t. The first episode of “Gracepoint” is, if not precisely shot-for-shot, at least beat-for-beat the same as “Broadchurch’s,” creating a strong and not especially welcome sense of déjà vu. Unlike the pilot for the American remake of “The Office,” which was like watching your friends butcher half-remembered Monty Python routines, “Gracepoint” is a well-executed simulacrum, but it’s still like watching really good karaoke.

To be fair, an increasing number of American shows are adapted from foreign sources: “Homeland” from an Israeli series, “House of Cards” from the U.K., “The Bridge” from Denmark, and many more. But few of them hew quite so close to their original models, and while “Broadchurch” may not have been seen by many Americans, it was seen by many more than “Hatufim” or “Bron.”

That faithfulness is more likely to repel “Broadchurch” viewers than draw them in: As Alan Sepinwall said on Twitter, “‘Gracepoint’ is designed in a way that essentially says ‘Broadchurch’ viewers aren’t welcome.” Critics who’ve watched all seven of the episodes Fox made available in advance (I saw two) say that “Gracepoint” does eventually start to diverge; it’s got 10 episodes to fill instead of eight, and showrunners have promised a different conclusion to the mystery. But it’s hard to imagine “Broadchurch” fans sticking it out that long. Pity or no, I’ve thus far seen no reason to watch one if you’ve seen the other.

So, where does that leave critics reviewing “Gracepoint”? They can’t pretend they haven’t seen “Broadchurch,” and “Gracepoint’s” extreme faithfulness, especially in the early episodes, makes it impossible not to measure them against each other. The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever admits “It’s almost impossible to watch ‘Gracepoint’ from a purely objective place and set aside the temptation to compare the two,” and Indiewire’s Liz Shannon Miller writes “To appreciate ‘Gracepoint’ on its own merits means sliding into a space of self-imposed ignorance.”

Some, like Thompson on Hollywood’s Matt Brennan, run with the comparison: “Gracepoint,” he writes, “is an ersatz affair, ‘Broadchurch’ for dummies.  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.” RogerEbert.com’s Brian Tallerico, likewise calls it “a remix of a great song with added instruments and increased volume, smothering what worked about the original.”
Others, like IGN’s Amber Dowling, try to block it out, at least “for argument’s sake.”

Most critics try to push past it, with some variation on the phrase, “Even if you haven’t seen ‘Broadchurch’….” “As much as the direct comparison likely draws more attention to the series’ flaws,” writes the A.V. Club’s Myles McNutt, “those flaws are present enough that even those who can’t make the comparison will sense the lack of energy behind this particular narrative.” The Huffington Post’s Maureen Ryan says, “But even if I hadn’t seen the U.K. drama, I’m pretty sure I would have found this adaptation a problematic slog.”

But even if you haven’t seen “Broadchurch,” “Gracepoint” may seem familiar. “What felt like a fresh take when ‘Broadchurch’ premiered on BBC America has become somewhat played out lately,” writes Variety’s Brian Lowry, “with several shows — among them ABC’s upcoming ‘Secrets & Lies’ — using a small-town murder as the catalyst to a broader drama. None of that is ‘Gracepoint’s’ fault, but it does speak to one of the dangers of such adaptations: Not only do you lose part of the impact among those who watched the original, but you trail far enough behind it to allow the inevitable clones to creep into the equation.” Slant’s Dan Jardine doesn’t appear to have seen “Broadchurch,” or at least he doesn’t mention it in his review, but he feels like he’s been here before: “It might be another entrant into the ‘small-town murder unravels the ties that bind the town together’ tale, but it lacks the ambition of ‘The Killing,’ ‘Twin Peaks,’ or ‘Top of the Lake,’ and fails to bring anything new to the genre.”

I haven’t seen enough “Gracepoint” to advise people not to watch it. But if I had to pick between spending eight hours on the “Gracepoint” episodes I haven’t seen or watching “Broadchurch” again, it would be an easy choice.

“Gracepoint” airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on Fox. “Broadchurch” is available for rental or purchase from iTunes, Amazon and other outlets.

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