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‘Broadchurch’ and Binging Through the Bad

Olivia Colman and a strong foundational first season keep the ups and downs of this UK series worthy of plowing through.
Binge Header Broadchurch
By  · Published on March 27th, 2020

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Binge Stats BroadchurchBroadchurch is not the best series of all time. It’s not even a really great series. Not consistently, anyway. But the British crime drama, which made its debut in 2013, does still manage to be one of the most binge-able shows ever created. At only three seasons, Broadchurch is known for being exceptional in its first, quite disappointing in its second, and then good again in the third. Still, there’s one constant throughout, pulling viewers along with steady satisfaction: Olivia Colman. She’s aces in her Oscar-winning performance in The Favourite, absolutely hilarious in Fleabag, and fantastic in her current role as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, but none of it tops her brilliant run as DS Ellie Miller in Broadchurch.

The rest of the core cast of Broadchurch is solid — and if you’re a fan of the extremely binge-able ongoing series Doctor Who, you’ll be happy to see two Doctors among the lead ensemble (David Tennant and Jodie Whittaker — and a third Doctor if you want to count David Bradley), plus one longtime companion (Arthur Darvill), and some minor and single-episode players among the regulars and recurring (including Colman, Matthew Gravelle, Jonathan Bailey, Eve Myles, Julie Hesmondhalgh, Lenny Henry, and Sarah Parish). And particularly the second season ramps things up talent-wise with the temporary additions of Charlotte Rampling, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, a never-hotter James D’Arcy, and a then-unfamous Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

Still, Colman reigns from start to finish. She plays DS Miller — or as you’ll come to know it by Tennant’s thick Scottish brogue, “Mallah!” — a police detective in the titular fictional seaside town whose first day back after a family vacation is a doozy. First, she learns she’s been passed over for a promotion to detective inspector (DI) in favor of the recently disgraced, newly transferred Alec Hardy (Tennant). Then, a murdered body is found on the beach — a crime that’s already unthinkable in the small tourist town — and Miller is the one to identify the victim as 11-year-old Danny Latimer, best friend of her own son. Everybody knows each other in Broadchurch, but this case is especially close to the detective sergeant (DS).

The investigation consumes the area, and the series follows a lot of intertwined characters, including the Latimers (Whittaker, Andrew Buchan, and Charlotte Beaumont), the local vicar (Darvill), the editor and a young journalist from the town’s newspaper (Carolyn Pickles and Jonathan Bailey), a newsstand owner (Bradley), a hotelkeeper (Simone McAullay), a professed psychic (Will Mellor), and a curmudgeonly, uncooperative woman from the caravan park (Pauline Quirke) who was first to see the body. There are others. Almost everyone is a suspect at some point or another. The first season is filled with shocking developments and heartbreaking moments. Colman gets to be smart, naive, funny, angry, sober, grief-stricken.

Her range continues to amaze in the underwhelmingly flat second season, which follows both the trial of Danny’s killer (no spoilers) and revisits DI Hardy’s previous murder case, which involved two girls and the acquittal of their suspected neighbor (D’Arcy). There’s too much going on in the second season. Too many people. So many subplots and new character arcs on top of those continuing from the first season. Rampling and Jean-Baptiste as legal adversaries with their own backstories could fill a show of their own. Meanwhile, some returning players, like Darvill, seem to have forced narrative connections just to keep them employed on the show. And let’s not even get into the messiness of Hardy’s health and professional situation.

The second season of Broadchurch is not just all over the place, it’s also a stretch, overextending the drama and tension from the first season with inferior logic and soapier storytelling. If it weren’t for so many fine actors, the story would collapse left and right. Fans continue on because of that on-screen talent making up for the downturn in creator Chris Chibnall‘s script. Plus, that first season hooks so deeply that the central plot questions — whether leftovers or further developments — remain intriguing enough to maintain the binge-ability from episode to episode. While Broadchurch is best when it’s both character-driven and mystery-driven, the second season is often more of a draw for the latter. The need to know answers and what happens next carries the audience ahead. And the soap-opera-ness of it all makes the nonsense stuff more addicting.

Plus, there’s always the promise of Season 3 (or series 3 as they say across the pond). Broadchurch has a reputation for going south in quality in the second season only to make a comeback with the third and final season. The truth is, Season 3 is still nowhere near as good as Season 1, but it’s definitely much tighter than the middle season. Unfortunately, one of the reasons for its improved focus is that its main plot is completely separate from what has come before. There are still some character arcs involving the original characters, but Season 3 is concentrated on a new case that’s both physically removed from Broadchurch and personally detached from all of the remaining primary characters.

This time, DS Miller and DI Hardy investigate the rape of a nearby woman (Hesmondhalgh) during a party. They have no connection to her nor to any of the characters among its web of witnesses and suspects. While Chibnall has said that he’d always envisioned Broadchurch as a trilogy, if he wanted the show to continue, this is a tease of how that could have gone, with a different case each season. Kind of like an extended version of an episode of Law & Order SVU, this season still puts Colman and Tennant front and center — it helps that none of the new regulars are very well-known even if they’re all sufficiently skilled in their performances. If there’s a standout, it’s Hesmondhalgh, but even hers is a relatively remote part for an audience still clinging to (and provided with) the original cast and some lingering residuals of the first season’s main story.

Season 3 of Broadchurch does also work well on its own as a thematically driven drama, albeit arguably overstated in that regard. Besides there obviously being at least one rapist in the area (perhaps a serial offender, as previously unreported rapes begin to surface — but maybe they’re unrelated?), there are chronic cheaters and womanizers, stalkers, sexual harassers, pornography-obsessed teen boys, a previously convicted sex offender, and schoolboy hackers circulating stolen photos of Hardy’s own daughter. Basically, most men are terrible, and that makes every male character a suspect, keeping the detectives and the viewers guessing. It’s convenient to the whodunit while also dealing with a timely issue.

That last case is also apparently the most predictable mystery of the series, but that’s not confirmed unless you watch to the end (I guess you could skip ahead or read spoilers, but what’s the fun in that?). Plus, Broadchurch does bring closure to the original characters by the last episode, and that’s rewarding enough for invested fans. The fact that all in, the show is only 24 episodes, eight per season, compels viewers to stick it out through the good and the bad to complete the thing, and there’s something to be said for the act of binging in the hope that each next episode will be better than the one just finished. With a longer series, there could only be so much of that before one just gives up.

Broadchurch is hardly the most brilliant show out there, but a very strong first season sets us up for the rest by quickly making us care about the core characters, their relationships, and their environment (the shots of the Dorset landscape, particularly with the cliffs of West Bay and Eype in the background, as well as other quaint locations used for filming, never get old). Other peaks can be found along the way with certain performances (Rampling always lights up the screen) and plot points. Fortunately, the series concluded on a relative upswing, too. So, for its emotional highs (mostly courtesy of Colman) and during its most ridiculous lows, Broadchurch is definitely a must-binge.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.