TV Review: Broadchurch

Once I finished the latest season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, my first order of summer binge-watching business was to watch this British show on Netflix that so many of my friends had been raving about: Broadchurch.

Broadchurch unfolds like your standard British crime drama. A young boy is murdered in a sleepy coastal village and summer tourist destination. The local police detectives must investigate and interview the local community to figure out whodunnit. Secrets emerge and tensions arise.

I’m a huge fan of this genre and grew up watching Midsomer Murders and the Agatha Christie’s Poirot series, so at this point, I’d be perfectly content to sit back and enjoy a good mystery story. However, Broadchurch does not end there. Instead they use the classic crime genre as a foundation to build upon with a fascinating narrative that explores the nature of family. First, the immediate family of the murder victim must come to terms with their loss and determine whether they will do so alone or with each other. This proves complicated when the family must also endure the scrutiny of the police. Vulnerability becomes a requirement, not a choice.

But Broadchurch extends beyond the immediate nuclear family and asks: who truly is “family”? What role do our neighbors play? As the investigation ensues, we gradually discover multiple other individuals in the community that took on paternal/maternal/familial roles with the victim. With each discovery, the immediate family must revisit their own relationship with and understanding of their son and their relationship with each external character. Even friendships on a horizontal level must be considered; what responsibility does each member have to each other? What sort of relationship is at play in each connection? The unacknowledged interdependencies within the town are exposed by this tragedy and simultaneously put at risk, threatening a municipal implosion unless Broadchurch can come together to redefine family.

To complicate matters even further, Broadchurch is set in the 21st century, and so the town is not left alone to work through matters itself. Social media and the Internet place the town under national scrutiny, begging the question: what role does the national community play in this idea of family? Is the modern idea of the nation, the imagined community, actually functional? Can individuals from outside of this tight community provide any value or support to the situation? Do they even have the right or responsibility to be informed about and involved in Broadchurch’s situation? This question is played out with a few characters, such as individuals representing national media outlets and family members of similar murder cases, but it is particularly explored with Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant), the brilliant but troubled man who has recently transferred into the local police force. He has little connection with the local community and an abrasive personality, resulting in much distrust and aversion from his colleagues and the people of Broadchurch. Both DI Hardy and Broadchurch have very different conceptions of what family means, and they must wrestle through those definitions with each other. Here again, notions of independence and dependencies are teased apart.

Ultimately, the question of family is intimately wrapped up in the question of knowledge. Who deserves to know what and why? What do we mean by “the right to know”? How is that actually played out? When does knowledge empower and when does it destroy? What is the difference between what we think we know and what we actually know? Or, how much of our knowledge is actually knowledge and not assumption? What is the correspondence between knowledge and truth?

The story of Broadchurch is a messy one. At times it is uncomfortable, and at times, it is cathartic. The narrative challenges, and it comforts. It is chilling, and it is warm. It’s complicated–as life is complicated. This acknowledgement of the paradoxical nature of life along with the down-to-earth, realistically portrayed characters is why I think so many people have resonated strongly with this show. I walked away from the two seasons (of eight episodes each) feeling deeply connected to the residents of the town, sharing in their emotions, and admiring their grasp of what it looks like to be both fierce and fragile — human.

Featured image is one frame from the first season of Broadchurch, used under fair use.

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