December 16, 2017

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WIRED Binge-Watching Guide: Broadchurch

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A funny thing happened when Broadchurch made its debut on England’s ITV in the spring of 2013: People started to gather around their televisions, in record numbers. Approximately 9.1 million viewers tuned in for the premiere episode, making it the most watched new drama since Whitechapel in 2009. Even more impressive, the majority of viewers were watching the series live—making sure they saw each new episode as it aired in real time.

The series was quickly labeled a television phenomenon, and many believed it would achieve Downtown Abbey-like fame when it made its way to the US later that year via BBC America. For whatever reason, that didn’t happen. (It probably didn’t help that, just before it made its BBC premiere, Fox announced that it would be “adapting” the show for American audiences as Gracepoint… which didn’t make a whole lot of sense, considering that the original version is in English, and that both starred Doctor Who’s David Tennant in the same role. But we digress.)

Even when the series arrived to streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, its reception wasn’t stellar. But the series proved popular enough with niche audiences—and impressive enough to the powers-that-be at BBC America—that they ran the show’s second season in its entirety, and will show its third (and final) season later this year.

So what’s it all about? On the surface, it’s a crime series in which two not-like-minded detectives—the disaffected Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and typically peppy Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman)—are paired up to help solve the murder of a young boy named Danny Latimer, who is the best friend of Miller’s own son and the child of two of her best friends, Beth and Mark Latimer. It all goes down on the day Miller returns from an extended family vacation—the same day she expected to be given a promotion, only to learn that Hardy, an outsider, has swept in and stolen her job.

While Hardy is operating from the mindset of a hardened detective who has learned that you can’t trust anyone and everyone should be a suspect, Miller is as an integral part of the community and doesn’t believe that a local resident would ever be capable of such a crime. What begins as a police investigation quickly turns into a statement on the idea that everyone has secrets and we never really know anyone, regardless of how much time we spend together. As the first season progresses, friends and neighbors quickly become suspects. And just when the detectives—and audience—think they have it figured out, a new piece of information surfaces that changes the entire investigation. It’s a suspenseful whodunit that keeps you guessing, but it’s also a beautifully rendered depiction of a grieving community. And a series that deserves the same kind of attention here that it’s gotten abroad.

As BBC America readies Broadchurch’s final season for American audiences, it’s time for you to discover why the series captivated England in the first place. Here’s how to binge-watch Broadchurch.

Broadchurch

Number of Seasons: 2 (16 episodes)

Time Requirements: If you want to savor the show a bit, one episode per night will have you done—and eagerly awaiting the third season—in just over two weeks. But, particularly with the first season, you likely won’t want to stop at an hour per night. In that case, go for two and you’ll be done in just over a week. Settling in and watching all of it over a weekend is also perfectly acceptable.

Where to Get Your Fix: Netflix, Amazon, iTunes

Best Character to Follow: Many of the greatest partnerships—be they romantic, professional, or otherwise—seem to prove the “opposites attract” theory. And this is certainly the case in Broadchurch, where detectives Hardy and Miller are perfectly matched in that they each fill in what the other is missing. (Hardy has the experience to know that everyone’s a suspect, while Miller—at least initially—believes that people are generally good, and is able to show the empathy that Hardy lacks.) While Hardy is the bigger presence, Miller’s transformation from doting wife and mother who happens to be a cop to hard-nosed detective who is forced to question everything she thought she knew about the people around her is fascinating to witness. Olivia Colman isn’t a huge name in Hollywood yet, though the Golden Globe she just won for The Night Manager will hopefully change that, so keep your eyes on her.

Seasons/Episodes You Can Skip: With just two seasons on offer, and only one more coming, the simple answer here is: Don’t skip any of it. But if you’re absolutely determined that you want to spend less than the required 16 hours it would take to complete the series, stick to Season 1. Broadchurch is one of those rare series that left you wanting more at the end of the first season, but ended on such a strong note that it could have easily called it a day after eight episodes. Particularly as it was hard to imagine where the narrative might lead in Season 2, since seemingly all of its loose ends had been tied up by the end of the first series.

Yet the show is also unique in that Season 2 came along and managed to deliver a small twist that upended the closure of Season 1 so that audiences could continue following the original storyline and characters, yet also be introduced an entirely new story and set of characters to play out in parallel. The second season is well done, with Tennant and Colman’s chemistry carrying much of the weight that comes with following up on a phenomenon. But it’s tone is different—and angrier—making it the weaker of the two seasons.

Seasons/Episodes You Can’t Skip: Again, if you’re planning a Broadchurch binge-watch, make it a true binge-watch and view it all the way through. Even if you’re just planning to watch the first season, you can’t afford to skip an episode, as each one is densely packed and reveals new information about the residents of Broadchurch as the detectives attempt to solve Danny’s murder. That said, there are some standout episodes.

Season 1: Episode 1, “1.1” Everything you really need to know about Broadchurch, and whether or not you’ll connect with it, can be learned in the first 12 minutes of this episode. It wastes no time in introducing the series’ main characters, and illustrating the tight-knit nature of this tiny town. It’s moody and mysterious in some places, fast-paced and fun in others, and ultimately gut-wrenching as Beth Latimer begins to suspect something’s not right with her son, Danny, who didn’t show up for school—and culminates with her realizing the dead body that has been found on the beach is his. The episode sets up what will be a taut drama.

Season 1: Episode 5, “1.5” The episode begins with one of the series’ most memorable and eerie sights: a reconstruction of the night Danny disappeared, with Ellie’s son Tom leading the procession of townsfolk who have gathered together to watch and try to make sense out of what happened the night Danny went missing. The case gets even more personal when it’s learned that the boat that was likely used to transport Danny’s body belonged to Ellie’s former brother-in-law. When the town finds out that one of its oldest residents, Jack Marshall—who runs the local newsstand (Danny was one of his paperboys) and has been in charge of the town’s sea brigade, which teaches young boys how to sail—spent time in prison for having sex with a minor, they quickly turn against him. By the time they learn the full account of Jack’s story, it’s too late to undo the damage that has been done.  

Season 1: Episode 6, “1.6” The slow progress and mounting problems surrounding Danny’s case have earned Hardy a reputation as one of England’s worst detectives, and the media has glommed onto the story. Mistakes from his own past, which are part of the reason he came to Broadchurch, are also brought to light though, as with Jack Marshall, no one has the full story. More suspects emerge in the murder, and Hardy and Miller come face-to-face with the killer—but a well-placed hoodie makes him impossible to identify.

Season 1: Episode 7, “1.7” Hardy is not a well man, and definitely not suited to his current job. Yet he refuses to stop until Danny’s killer is caught, and not even a stint in the hospital will sidetrack him. He comes clean about his past to the local newspaper reporters, who have begun to have their own suspicions about who the killer might be. Then an eyewitness comes forward.

Season 1: Episode 8, “1.8” As the first season closes, Danny’s murderer is revealed—which only leads to more questions, and pain.

Season 2: Episode 1, “2.1” It would have been easy to stop at one season with Broadchurch. Thankfully, Chris Chibnall—the show’s creator—figured out a clever way to keep the story going. (Similar to the way that Damages continued to churn out compelling television after what seemed like a concept that could only sustain a single season.) The first Season 2 episode also serves as a bit of a catch-up as to how each of the first season’s participants have fared in the aftermath of finding Danny’s killer.

Season 2: Episode 8, “2.8” While the murder of Danny Latimer is still a front-and-center topic in Season 2, a second storyline sees Miller helping Hardy to clear his name and figure out the truth about what happened in Sandbrook, his previous home, where a botched murder investigation sullied his professional reputation. After years of little progress, Miller’s fresh set of eyes help to see what really happened and give Hardy his own sense of closure.

Why You Should Binge: We’re not going to pretend that Broadchurch is a happy show, or that it offers any easy answers. And in that way, it’s an honest representation of everyday life. But it manages to find the beauty that exists in the world around us, too—particularly in reminding us that when tragedy strikes, we’re not alone. It’s heartbreaking, but compelling and expertly composed. It’s beautifully written and acted, with England’s breathtaking Jurassic Coast providing a rather jarring juxtaposition to the sadness that surrounds the mystery of a murdered young boy. And it reminds us that, no matter how dark our days may be, there’s always that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and a way to emerge from it—even if the road is a painful one.

Best Scene—”A Mother’s Grief”:

Though Broadchurch benefits from being an ensemble drama, it’s David Tennant and Olivia Colman who get most of the screen time. Still, one could argue that it’s Danny’s mother, Beth (Jodie Whittaker), who is the star of the show—or, at the very least, the heart of the show. Watching the destruction she faces as a mother unable to properly grieve her son is in many ways what draws the audience in in the first episode. You don’t have to be a parent to understand what sort of emotional toll seeing the body of your murdered son would take; it’s impossible to not be affected by Whittaker’s devastation.

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The Takeaway:

Technology has turned us into a paradoxical society: While we have the ability to connect to the world in just seconds with a few swipes on our cell phones, many have argued that we’ve never been more disconnected from the people around us. While it’s easy to look at a quaint little English seaside town like the one represented in Broadchurch as the kind of place where a sense of community is still important, the truth is that it’s hard to ever really know anyone—regardless of the proximity in which you live. But the series also offers a glimmer of hope in showing that when life gets difficult, it affects us all, and it’s in those moments that we truly band together. Given today’s political climate, that promise has rarely been more important or encouraging.

If You Like Broadchurch, You’ll Love: A female police sergeant dealing with the aftermath of a divorce, her daughter’s suicide, and the rearing of her grandson—while keeping on her game at work—all come into play in Happy Valley, a stellar, female-focused British crime series that came to American audiences via Netflix.

Similarly, Netflix’s Marcella stars Anna Friel as a former London homicide detective who takes a break following a family tragedy. But when her kids head off to boarding school and her husband leaves her for another woman, she’s determined to get her job back and put away the one criminal who always managed to elude her.

Finally, Gillian Anderson kicks ass as DSI Stella Gibson, a brilliant detective who is brought to Belfast to help catch a serial killer in The Fall. Unlike other crime series, this one isn’t a mystery: we know from the beginning that Paul Spector (Jamie Dornan), a seemingly normal husband, father, and bereavement counselor, also has a penchant for stalking and murder. The series, which recently released its third season, gets clunkier as it goes along. But the first season is a great cat-and-mouse story, with some truly creepy crime scenes.

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