Home > History, Reviews, Television > TV Quickshots #17

TV Quickshots #17

Broadchurch – Series 1 (ITV; 2013)

There is much that is familiar about Broadchurch, British broadcaster ITV’s critical and popular hit drama about the murder of a boy in a small, quiet seaside town in Dorset. It’s built around a whodunit murder mystery full of false suspects, dramatic feints and twists, and character archetypes festooned with leading hints about potential guilt: there’s both a young priest (Arthur Darvill) and an elderly Sea Brigade (read: Boy Scouts) leader (David Bradley) with access to the local boys, as well as an aggressive dullard with a crossbow (Joe Sims) and a suspicious lady living on her own by the beach (Pauline Quirke) to choose from. Additionally, the detectives heading the investigation (David Tennant and Olivia Colman) display considerable, charming friction towards each other (think Marty and Rust of True Detective, but opposite sex and Scottish/English), largely because of the irascibility and misanthropy of the anti-hero Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (Tennant), who has both a secret in his past and a physical ailment to hamper his efforts to find the boy’s murderer.

Broadchurch should be so much more formulaic than it is, but creator Chris Chibnall (who co-wrote the series with Louise Fox) is nimble enough to avoid this trap. The final solution to the murder doesn’t quite play fair, to be honest; there are sizable dialogue hints that point to the unpresupposing suspect in the latter clutch of episodes, but little that indicts that person more directly than anyone else in town until minutes before the finale’s reveal. But the whodunit narrative is the bait to draw audiences into a richly shot, written and acted portrait of a community rent by distrust and suspicion and a family torn by grief, guilt, and resentment but grasping at love and at a normalized future.

Broadchurch‘s tremendous, haunting sense of place (much of the series was shot in West Bay on the Jurassic Coast, with some doubling shot to the north in Somerset and Bristol) and compelling portrait of local dynamics, as well as the potent central performances of Tennant, Colman, and Jodie Whittaker and Andrew Buchan as the murdered boy’s parents, carries it through the rough shoals of formula into equally troubled but artistically deeper waters. Chibnall is working on a second series on the aftermath of the murder mystery’s resolution, and has also developed an American adaptation for Fox starring Tennant and Breaking Bad‘s Anna Gunn. Each will have a hard time matching the rare power of this ingratiating first series, however.

American Experience (PBS; 1988 – Present)

Although PBS’s venerable American history documentary franchise continues to produce superlative films that celebrate national successes while interrogating the troubling implications of those successes (films on Old West outlaws like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid come to mind, as do those examining events like the My Lai massacre or Reconstruction), another less acceptable subset of productions has crept into the series’ expanding canon.

Witness recent episodes about the construction of Penn Station or the growth of the tech industry in Silicon Valley. One deep concern often expressed about the increasing funding of PBS programs via corporate funding and elite foundations rather than government funding is that the subjects and perspectives of the programming would begin to reflect and support the positions and predilections of their funders. This has been visible at the once-mighty science program Nova, where funding by the Koch Brothers has seen the fine documentaries of yesteryear devolve into Discovery Channel-level filmed engineering experiments.

Both of the cited episodes constitute little more than corporate hagiography. The Rise and Fall of Penn Station treats the grand Manhattan railroad terminal’s proto-CEO mastermind Alexander Cassat as a laudable visionary and the project itself as a gift from the private sector to the wider public. It has considerably less to say about the market forces that flattened the grand Neoclassical structure for a sports arena and claustrophobic subterranean train station. Silicon Valley, more damningly, presents the pioneering technological and corporate work on superconductors by Fairchild in San Jose, California in the 1950s and 1960s as romantic and heroic, but fails to even acknowledge the mean-boss monstrousness of Fairchild founder William Shockley, let alone his later, very public profile as a bigoted white supremacist.

Much, much better at tackling the complexities of 20th Century American history was the hugely entertaining (and fairly droll) examination of Orson Welles’ famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast and the now-ridiculous mass panic that it created. The details of Welles’ creative fire and clashes with radio executives are wonderful, and the re-enacted statements from those who heard the broadcast and panicked about Martians invading New Jersey are often hilarious. A lighter subject, yes, but one just as revealing of an easily-alarmed corner of the American psyche that is well worth keeping in mind in every major crisis.

Categories: History, Reviews, Television
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  1. February 15, 2015 at 10:49 am

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