If he’s lucky, there are two or three times a year when the television critic’s job is just too easy. For example: You should do everything you can to watch the exceptionally striking British miniseries “Broadchurch,” which was a big hit over there earlier this year and makes its debut here on BBC America on Wednesday night. It’s among the best detective shows — and perhaps even among the best dramas — in several years. It will break your heart and keep you guessing all the way through.
It’s tempting now to hit send and call it a day.
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.
As Miller and Hardy, actors Colman and Tennant give achingly memorable performances as at-sorts detectives in pursuit of a suspect. Miller has to learn to trust no one, including her close friends, including even Danny’s father (Andrew Buchan), who initially gives a false alibi; the socially awkward Hardy has to learn the delicate mechanics of small-town life.
For several episodes, “Broadchurch” stylishly revels in the tropes of the murder-mystery genre: Was it the priest? Was is the plumber’s assistant? Was it the old man who runs the newsstand? (He is, after all, played by David Bradley, who also plays Lord Walder Frey, the duplicitous host of “Game of Thrones’s” infamous Red Wedding.) Was it the creepy lady from the trailer park? Was it Danny’s best friend?
You will find yourself ruling suspects out one by one. For once in my life, I picked out the killer a little more than midway through — but I’m not sure if that’s a flaw in “Broadchurch’s” cleverness or if all those mediocre American procedurals I’ve force-watched have finally sunk in. If you’re not drawn to trying to solve the mystery yourself, it’s easy to instead luxuriate in the terrific ensemble performances, the hypnotic soundtrack (by Olafur Arnalds) and the various subplots.
One of these side stories, however, turns out to be “Broadchurch’s” weak spot, wherein the editor and reporter of the local paper struggle to keep ahead of the big-city media circus drawn to the sensational investigation. The ensuing hand-wringing over journalism ethics occasionally feels as shopworn as lead type.
“Broadchurch” nevertheless fulfills its contract; unlike other high-end crime dramas, the mystery does get solved, as sadly as it began. In fact, “Broadchurch” ends so precisely and completely that I was somewhat baffled to learn that a second season is in the works.
Not only that, we must now make way for the American copycat: At the Television Critics Association’s press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif., last week, Fox announced that it has reached a deal to produce its own version of “Broadchurch” next year.
Experience tells us that this is an exercise in artistic and creative futility, another example of a network conceit held over from the days when Americans rarely got to see the original versions of European shows. Fox was very excited about its “Broadchurch” news, but you could sense a roomful of TV critics (myself included) all swiftly and simultaneously tweeting: Why bother? It surely can’t get much better than it already is.
(one hour) eight-week series begins Wednesday at 10 p.m. on BBC America.