I must be one of the few people in the country who thinks 2013’s Broadchurch didn’t live up to the immense hype surrounding it.
Chris Chibnall’s mystery drama, starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman, seemed to be the talk of everyone that year. The show was almost universally praised for it’s gripping plot, interesting and multi-layered characters and superb performances. It even walked away with a few BAFTAs under its belt, including a best actress award for Colman.
When I finally got round to watching it, I expected to be utterly blown away. After all, I love a good mystery drama. When done well, they can make for really powerful television, creating a story that twists and turns before shocking you with an ending that makes perfect sense when watched back. However, Broadchurch, for me, didn’t really deliver.
While I agree that some aspects of series one were superb, overall I found it… just okay – not the brilliant, groundbreaking show I was promised, but still entertaining enough to be worth watching. Admittedly, the performances from Colman and David Bradley, in particular, were absolutely stunning. Bradley really stole the show with his heartbreaking portrayal of Jack Marshall. But as a whole piece of television, it was far from perfect.
The problems, for me, lay with the actual story. The series dragged on way too long, and I started to lose interest by the final episode. When the identity of 11-year-old Danny Latimer’s (Oskar McNamara) killer was finally revealed to be DS Ellie Miller’s (Olivia Colman) husband, Joe (Matthew Gravelle), it really did seem to come out of nowhere. It was as though Chris Chibnall had decided that the culprit had to be Joe, but simply had no idea what would actually motivate him to do it.
The eventual explanation, that Joe was having some sort of love affair with Danny, was such a massive twist that, on reflection, it didn’t seem to make much sense. There had been no hints throughout the series that Joe had anything to do with it at all, or that he was a paedophile. After spending the entire series putting pretty much every cast member in the frame, it seemed the show settled on an explanation that didn’t really make any sense.
What Broadchurch did provide was a self-contained story, one that reached a conclusion. Thus, when a second series was announced, to air in January 2015, many were curious as to what it would actually be about.
In contrast to the universal acclaim of series one, the second outing was much less favourably received, criticised for its far-fetched ideas amid claims that it was carried by the acting talent. Now the series has wrapped up and a third has been announced, it’s a perfect time to take a closer look at the so-called underwhelming second series, to see if the reaction was justified.
Picking up a few months after the events of series one, the people of Broadchurch have been trying to move on. Danny’s mother and father, Beth (Jodie Whittaker) and Mark (Andrew Buchan), are having marital problems. Ellie is now an unforgiving uniform officer whose son, Tom (Adam Wilson), refuses to associate with her. And DI Hardy (David Tennant) is now a training officer – a job he detests.
The events leading up to Danny’s murder are soon to be placed under the spotlight once more, as Joe pleads not guilty to the crime. Meanwhile, the ghosts of Hardy’s past begin to threaten everything, as the main suspect in his last failed case, Lee Ashworth (James D’Arcy), rocks into town looking for his ex-wife Claire (Eve Myles), whom Hardy just happens to be hiding.
Hardy is convinced Ashworth is responsible for the deaths of two young girls, and only managed to get away with it due to Hardy’s wife, Tess Hatchard (Lucy Cohu), losing crucial evidence linking him to the crime. However, when Hardy and Ellie team up to take a closer look at the so-called Sandbrook case, is everything as it seems?
Series two presents a couple of distinct storylines which are only loosely related to each other: the courtroom battle to get Joe acquitted, and the ongoing mystery of Sandbrook, which is essentially a brand new case for Hardy and Miller, having very little to do with Danny Latimer’s murder.
The mystery element in this series is actually its downside, as it serves only to take time away from the established characters the audience have tuned in to see. That’s not to say the courtroom aspect is perfect. It’s a very unrealistic portrayal of a murder trial, with each character’s story picked to pieces, but it does present a grim look at how the legal system can be played to avoid conviction. While there is a hell of a lot to enjoy, and I admit I had a good time watching it, there is no doubt series two has glaring problems.
Like its predecessor, the second series boasts an incredible cast, all of them on top of their game. Most of the original lot return, and we get some welcome additions in Myles and D’Arcy, as well as the superb Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as lawyers Jocelyn Knight and Sharon Bishop, respectively.
Watching Rampling and Jean-Baptiste battle it out in the courtroom during Joe’s trial is one of the finer aspects of the show, presenting two characters who both have very personal reasons to win. However, it is Tennant and Colman who steal the spotlight. Colman effortlessly delivers her lines as though they never even came from a script.
All the actors get to showcase their talents very early on in episode one, when Joe reveals to a horrified court that he’s pleading not guilty. The reactions from everyone are spot on, but Colman’s transcends the rest and makes it one of the most powerful scenes the show has produced. It comes as no surprise that, during series one, Colman’s performance was so intense that she actually bruised Gravelle’s back. She’s on top form again here, playing Ellie as a broken woman who has lost everything.
As with the first series, certain aspects of the story let the show down, particularly the mystery surrounding Sandbrook. While the original characters remain interesting and relatable, it’s the new additions that suffer, most notably prime suspect Lee Ashworth and his wife Claire. Simply put, their characterisation is all over the damn place.
Lee’s first appearance gives the impression of a weirdo who is immensely dangerous and trying to track down his ex to do her harm. His intimidating behaviour towards both her and Hardy is clearly supposed to make us think he’s taunting them. He knows they’re aware he’s guilty, and can do nothing about it. However, it later turns out he was simply a victim of circumstance, and it’s Claire who is the dangerous one.
Chibnall is trying to present an idea that nothing is as it seems, but both Claire and Lee go through so many character transformations as the episodes progress, that it’s very difficult to get a handle on either of them. The eventual solving of this mystery only highlights this weakness further, as we discover Lee didn’t end up killing one of the girls because of his own sadistic nature, but simply to cover up another murder out of fear. The man we see here is not the man that was presented to us at the start of the series, and it’s therefore very hard to try and make sense of the whole story.
I liked some aspects of the Sandbrook plot. The twist at the end came as a surprise, even though it’s very difficult to still believe Hardy is a half-decent cop when he was played so easily by Claire. The revelation that Ricky Gillespie (Shaun Dooley) and Lee were responsible for the murders, with the cover-up manufactured by Claire, was actually quite a shock. But at least it felt like the story had been leading up to it, unlike the ending of series one.
Despite the rather erratic way both Claire and Lee are written, it is an interesting and clever twist to reveal that Claire had been pulling the strings all along. And Eve Myles plays a blinder, seriously creeping me out at times. Plus, it does wonders for DI Hardy, as we truly discover why the case left him in such bad health. With his condition worsening, Hardy is determined to solve the murders that took everything from him, and this gives David Tennant plenty of good material to work with.
There are aspects of a seriously good mystery here, but the weak writing lets it down quite significantly. While Danny’s story in series one was very much a study of how a murder can affect a whole town, this time the focus is on the culprits, making it difficult to connect with the show emotionally. It’s Hardy and Ellie who save it from total failure.
Along with the Sandbrook investigation, the other major storyline is Joe’s trial, and it’s much more gripping. While Sandbrook could be a standalone plot, the courtroom drama is very much a sequel to the first series, revisiting several events as Sharon Bishop works to destroy every aspect of the prosecution’s case. She does this in a couple of ways: first, by completely discrediting the police investigation, which is actually pretty believable considering all the questionable actions undertaken in series one; and then by presenting Danny’s dad, Mark, as the more likely suspect. While some aspects seem a little far-fetched, this storyline does achieve one thing: it’s damn entertaining.
Watching the ruthless Bishop rip apart the case against Joe is as compelling as it is heartbreaking. We as an audience know that Joe is guilty. The characters know he’s guilty. Even his lawyers know he’s guilty. And yet, despite the best efforts of Jocelyn Knight, there is a grim sense of foreboding when it appears he’s actually going to get away with it.
The series excels in showing the effects the court case has on the established characters. After all, we saw what the actual murder did to them, and the message here is that the eventual court case can be even worse. As events progress, more and more secrets are revealed, which only make Knight’s job harder.
The fact that so many of the characters are wrapped up in their own lives, events that indirectly led to Danny’s murder now lead to the release of his killer. This is very powerful stuff, and it shows just how strong Broadchurch can be when it focuses on the characters. Both Bishop and Knight are extremely interesting, even if their personal storylines, such as Bishop’s imprisoned son and Knight developing blindness, are not as fully explored as they could have been. My feeling is they’re being saved for a future instalment, which is promising.
Outside of the courtroom, and away from Sandbrook, there isn’t really much else going on. Individual storylines are explored, but don’t really go anywhere. One intriguing idea, where Beth thinks of helping reformed sex offenders, is pretty much abandoned as soon as it begins, and only seems to be there to give her something to do. Despite the revelations in the courtroom that point the finger of blame at him, Mark also has very little to work with here. The relationship problems between him and Beth aren’t really resolved.
Pauline Quirke, always dependable, comes back for an episode or two as Susan Wright, to shake up the trial events and inform her estranged son she is dying, but her presence isn’t really needed and feels a little wasted. Like the bubbling storylines of Knight and Bishop, it seems to be all about what the future holds rather than what is happening now.
It’s Reverend Coats (Arthur Darvill) who definitely has the best personal story arc of the series. His desire to help Joe come to terms with what he has done conflicts with his instinctive hatred for him. Coats shows he’s very willing to help Joe if he’ll let him, but abandons him when he decides to plead not guilty. In the end, Coats truly gives up on him, allowing the townspeople to deal with Joe themselves.
Was series two as disappointing as everyone claimed? I don’t think so. Yes, there are problems, but I had rather a good time watching it. There is plenty to like, and when the show gets it right, it gets it very right. The cast is superb, the storyline is gripping, and the series leaves you with plenty to think about.
My lukewarm reception to series one meant I was not expecting a masterpiece, but a lot of people were, which led to the negative responses. A debut that enjoys the massive popularity of Broadchurch, whether justified or not, is going to have a very hard time coming back for a second run. What we do get is an entertaining piece of TV with strong characters – for the most part – and a story that gripped me from start to finish.
Not perfect, but certainly not terrible, and I’ll most certainly be tuning in for series three.