That’s because “Broadchurch” is one of those shows that seems, at first, nearly immune to prolonged conversations about its theme or intent. It also hides its tiny shortcomings rather well. The only real question it triggers for its viewers happens to be an eternal favorite: Whodunit? (I promise not to tell. The Internet, however, clearly made no such promise, so surf cautiously.)
Set on England’s Dorset County coast, “Broadchurch” is the name of a fictional, working-class town where everyone knows everyone else. Early on a summer morning, the body of an 11-year-old boy is discovered on the beach below the town’s steep cliffs.
Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) has just returned from a vacation with her family to find that the promotion she was hoping for — to detective inspector — has been given to an outsider, Alec Hardy (David Tennant), who considers the job a penitential demotion for his bungled work on a high-profile murder case a year earlier.
Having gotten off to the worst start imaginable in a matter of minutes, the two detectives respond to the report of the dead body. A horrified Miller recognizes the boy — Danny Latimer, the son of her neighbors and closest friends, Mark and Beth Latimer.
Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker) is already frantically searching for her son, who didn’t report for his paper route or his soccer game. When beach traffic is blocked off, she sprints past the yellow tape and is intercepted by Miller, but too late: She recognizes her son’s shoes peeking out from under the tarp and collapses in screams of agony.
A word about that: I’m just proximate enough to the grief of friends and loved ones who have lost a child — to murder, car wrecks, disease — that I often wonder how they’re able to watch television, rife as it is with make-believe stories of parents finding out that their child has died, often in the worst way. The degree to which the writers or the performers harness this unshakable sorrow, which makes “Broadchurch” so instantly gripping, is also hard to take. Flipping through the TV grid, which most of us do as a way to escape our thoughts, must be exceptionally challenging in grieving households.
Or maybe I don’t know the first thing about processing loss. Maybe for some there is catharsis in something as well made but as deeply morose as “Broadchurch.”
What I do know is that “Broadchurch” is notably preoccupied with how such a death would shroud an entire community. Once it’s established that Danny did not leap from the cliffs — that his body was placed on the beach by a hasty killer hoping to eliminate evidence — “Broadchurch” remains most true to the narrative of a town losing its innocence.