I’d heard great things about iTV’s Broadchurch, written by Chris Chibnall (who I know mostly through is work on the modern Doctor Who and Torchwood). It’s finally been imported to BBC America where I found the acting stunning, the production (mostly) beautiful, and the writing passable at best. As someone struggling with writing a murder mystery currently, I was hyper-focused on how Broadchurch would do it, and was I have to say very disappointed. Here are some random thoughts why.
This post will contain spoilers, so be warned if you haven’t seen the series yet and want to experience that part of the show fresh. I won’t mention the name of the killer here, but you’ll be able to figure it out.
First I must say that the acting in Broadchurch was tremendous across the board. Special kudos to: Olivia Colman- luminous in an underwritten part, Andrew Buchan- drop-dead amazing in an extremely challenging role, and Pauline Quirke and Will Mellor- both playing heavily, and very well, against type. David Tennant successfully made us forget Doctor Who. Jodie Whittaker as the mother of the murdered boy had probably the most difficult emotional role to play, for the longest time. The acting (except by the actor playing the murderer, ironically) I thought was amazing.
The scenery was beautiful, something the cinematography caught well. The music by Ólafur Arnalds was good, if a bit overused in places, and caused me to try and find the soundtrack. The direction was pretty good, with some very nice framings and a praise-worthy opening tracking shot following Mark Latimer through the town.
The script definitely had its moments of greatness, and some very interesting explorations of both what the boy’s death meant to his family and the community. However, taken as a whole, I thought it presented some crucial structural problems that the production did not solve. In no real order:
1. Real police work was done by (often unseen) others– tracking the cell phone, recovering the lost emails, several rounds of (quite detailed and lucky) forensics (that apart from a shoe size and blood on a boat didn’t add up to much). This was a TV show supposedly based on police procedurals, but the police work mainly happened off stage.
2. Story arcs do not create deep characters. For all of Olivia Colman’s talent, Ellie is surprisingly a one-note character with nothing much to do but fret and sympathize, until she explodes at the end. Hardy’s heart condition is interesting and provides conflict, but it is pretty much dispensed with by the final episode. After two trips to Emergency, Chibnall doesn’t have much more he can do with it. And didn’t Hardy have a kid? He was at Broadchurch as a boy? Was he abused? These avenues are introduced as significant but left undeveloped. Contrary to how Chibnall uses them, they don’t create character depth.
3. Big plot holes and scenes that seemed to happen just to be able to film them.
- Danny’s mobile phone. The police had the number. Couldn’t they have just contacted the carrier to learn who bought the phone for him? That would have given them the murderer right there.
- The nighttime chase. Why did the murderer do this? Was it just so they could end episode 6 with Hardy collapsing?
- Some key opportunities were also missed. Like a moment to reflect on the fact later that the murder physically abused Ellie during the chase, given whom he turned out to be.
4. Key info that would allow the audience to solve the mystery was kept from them. Only two names appeared on the email messages, but we’re not told who they were (or what the emails contained). This was probably meant to be more of a Conan Doyle move, where key info is kept from the reader so we can appreciate Sherlock Holmes’ resourcefulness when the solution is revealed, than the Agatha Christie method where usually the thing that eventually solves the case for the detective is slipped unobtrusively into the narrative (how a suspect used a certain word, what was missing from the evidence, etc.), giving the audience a fighting chance to solve it on their own, keeping them invested in the plot’s progress. Although I suspected the actual suspect from episode four, I did not have the evidence to prove it because the camera didn’t show Hardy’s computer screen with that key info of the email records. As a writer, that felt like cheating, especially if the whole point of the series was supposed to be the solution of the murder.
5. The resolution. But of course that key info didn’t really matter because police procedural work didn’t actually catch the killer. He surrendered. So the work of Hardy and Ellie didn’t really amount to much in the end. Of course Hardy gets to say he “knew” (those records again), but that didn’t actually constitute any real evidence, and his only line mentioning those records is tossed off as an afterthought although that was all the police had in the end.
6. There was a tonal problem. For example, Psychic Steve shows up and sinister music plays. But then he’s actually goodhearted. I had him figured as a confidence trickster, something that his initial scenes in Beth’s living room allude to as he asks leading questions like psychic John Edward (you might remember the mocking Family Guy episode about him). But then he gives truthful info, suggesting that he actually does have supernatural powers. So are we then in Buffy or Torchwood world where the supernatural is at play? No we’re not, so the treatment of Psychic Steve is problematic, solved only by the fact he then retreats into the background and is not focused on again for no real reason (see also the bonfire scene below).
7. By the end, there is no real resolution for most of the characters. The peripheral characters, which get to have story arcs in previous episodes, are just ignored in the final episode.
- Susan Wright is gone who knows where.
- Bald Nigel Carter is apparently on the lamb, but then shows up smiling for no reason, back in the community.
- Pub owner Becca Fisher maybe gets two lines in the entire last episode, her stories having gone absolutely nowhere with more noise than effect.
- Journalist Karen White steps from the shadows to offer Ellie some banal advice showing…. what? That she’s reformed? Is she still working for the Herald? We have no idea.
- I think there was an attempt made to have Maggie and Ollie do the right thing by making… yawn… another big headline front page, but the shot is so badly staged and positioned that we can’t actually read it.
- The Vicar is still giving vague sermons nobody pays much attention to. And presumably still in AA.
- Psychic Steve still isn’t explained, and gets a short, slow-mo shot at the bonfire service as if he played any meaningful role. I’m not sure he’s actually been in the last three episodes.
- And poor Jack Marshall gets one mention in one line this episode, but nobody seems to care much.
With good actors, you can just have a shot (usually in slo-mo) that conveys emotional connection between the character and audience. This is certainly done many times, including our last time when we see the characters. But this shouldn’t be used to cover lack of closure of a story arc.
But perhaps the single worst tonal error in Chibnall’s script happens right near the end. There is a bonfire lighting service, which I guess is supposed to represent resolution (never mind how unrealistic the overdone result with all those fires- organized by one vicar who isn’t very good at his job). The family seeks comfort. But then Beth gets a vision of Danny standing there, wearing an expression a bit like Damian’s in The Omen. Blink, blink, rub eyes- he’s gone! This cheap sentimentality cliché is wholly out of line with the rest of the drama. And is there any explanation of this breach of the supernatural world? No. So maybe it’s in Beth’s mind. Is there any exploration of how she feels that this might be Danny saying goodbye, or that she still can’t let go, or will she be haunted, or…? No. She freaks out, is held by Mark, then the camera goes away, never to return to her.
8. Frustrating red herrings. WHO WAS THE FREAKIN’ POSTMAN DANNY WAS ARGUING WITH???? Red herrings are fine to put into the plot, but only if they’re relevant and resolved clearly.
If you’re going to write an ensemble piece that justifies multiple episodes to explore character arcs, give equal weight and actually resolve those arcs. Otherwise you get what you get with Broadchurch: this is the episode where the father is the suspect because of his affair, this is the episode where the journalists act bad, this is the episode about the community falling apart, this is the episode where mother and son argue,… and the end effect has to be unbalance because the stories brought to the forefront for one episode force the others to retreat, only to retreat when the next plot point gets reached. And in the end, Ellie’s just going to move on because she’s ashamed. After 8 episodes, what apart from the solution to the murder mattered? If the message is that a solved murder and unresolved story arcs basically mean that life just goes on, well, that’s a very banal message to end on.
So for my mystery novel, Broadchurch taught me that complete character arcs are important and necessary, tone is important to get right, the audience needs to be more than spectator, don’t hold back crucial info or evidence from the audience just to create tension, justify scenes, and most importantly, if my story is every filmed, make sure to get Olivia Colman and Andrew Buchan to star.