There’s just something about story writers and small towns. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s something there that just beckons for them to come. Whether it’s a small town in Washington that happens to be inhabited by vampires, or the innocent little town where a nice boy named Danny is killed, screenwriters and novelists alike love to use small towns as their backdrop. It has some sort of appeal, and that appeal works in Broadchurch, but that may not necessarily be a good thing.
The U.K. drama had a resounding measure of success, so much so that the mini-series style show was renewed for a new mystery in a second season, and it even spawned an American version, renamed Gracepoint. It gained so much success because of its dark and dramatic storytelling, which, to its credit, is done extremely well. Once small town boy Danny is murdered, the mystery turns to a dark game of “whodunnit,” with all major characters being introduced in the first couple episodes. You know the killer is somewhere in their midst, but who is it? The intrigue is added to further when the lives of the different characters are upended in the investigation, mostly by the inquiry of Detective-Inspector Alec Hardy, played brilliantly by David Tennant.
The familiarity of the actors undoubtedly helped the show launch itself to fame. Doctor Who favorite David Tennant headlines the show, with fellow Who star from a different period of the show Arthur Darvill playing Rev. Paul Coates. If those two weren’t enough, David Bradley also plays a supporting role as a local shopkeeper, who Harry Potter fans will recognize as Filch, and Doctor Who fans will recognize as having played the first Doctor Who actor William Hartnell in the film An Adventure in Space and Time.
But be not deceived, this drama is far from the youthful charm of Doctor Who and the Harry Potter series. The story is told well, with unfolding drama from Danny’s family, Hardy’s health, and even his partner Ellie’s family, but it’s far from charming. It’s a dark story, taking a brutally honest look at grief by the family and community, and even a rather clever subplot asking questions about the value of the press – does it help or hurt the family? But while these are thought-provoking questions, a Christian can’t help but have his reservations about the drama.
That’s not because the show has a negative perspective on religion. Far from it, in fact. While Hardy is pressing Coates about his past, trying to twist his mentoring relationship with the victim into motive for murder, Coates confronts Hardy about his antagonistic attitude toward religion, simply because Hardy himself is not a religious man. God through him “offers something you can’t,” he rightly points out. Coates is far from hypocritical, offering heartfelt sympathy to Danny’s mother when most only stare at her, and giving grief counsel with humility. He focuses on God without being overly preachy or radical, a portrayal that is far too seldom in modern dramas, and even counsels a woman to keep a baby she wants to abort. He fights his own demons, to be sure, but he comes away probably the most virtuous of the town’s less-than-innocent characters.
But at what cost must we receive this portrayal of religion? One by one the characters of the drama are revealed to have rather serious character flaws. Child molestation is a fairly major subplot theme, and in one case is even offered to us with an explanation (in that case, the girl was just a year underage and the man much older). A good family man has an affair and is revealed to have beaten his son, a young journalist jumps into bed with a co-worker, and a teenage girl angrily admits to having sex with her secret boyfriend with no sign of regret, and her family shows little opposition to it. All this with a backdrop of occasional yet vulgar profanities. The show makes occasional use of the f-word, and once uses a particularly vulgar British profanity, as well as slightly more common uses of other profanities.
So yes, the show does have an honest look at grief and a very honorable portrayal of the lone religious figure in the story. It does ask serious questions about the value of the media and D.I. Hardy himself turns out to be a bastion of moral integrity and selflessness. But the embellishment of depravity that pervades every segment of the town makes it difficult for me to leave this show with anything less than a skeptical view of human nature that causes me to look at everyone I meet as a probable sex offender, adulterer, or otherwise immoral person.
Broadchurch ultimately travels into the gray area, where there are worthwhile things, but where the bad drowns out much of the good. I’m left to wish it had less depravity so that I could recommend it or more so that I could voraciously oppose it. But as it stands, it’s a thematically ambiguous story, with conflicting themes and muddled concepts in the backdrop of a dark and gritty perception of a small town. There are worse things to spend your time watching, but there are most certainly better. And if you wish to err on the side of caution, then Broadchurch is not a small town you want to visit anytime soon.