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'Broadchurch': BBC America's Great New Detective Series

Photo of Caryn James By Caryn James | James on Screens August 5, 2013 at 9:05AM

Great detective series are never about the crimes; they're about great detectives, and BBC America's Broadchurch has one. With a depth that goes beyond formula drama, Olivia Colman plays Ellie Miller, a wife and mother in the sea- side town of Broadchurch, who finds herself investigating the murder of the 11-year-old boy next door, her own son's best friend. Ellie has a practical, crimped hairstyle that may be the worst in the history of haircuts. She wears the drab gray pantsuit that lady-detectives in most crime shows try to glam up; she doesn't. She is empathetic, engaging, and down-to-earth -- qualities that only grow as she slowly realizes that someone in her own apparently wholesome community, someone she has to know, killed that little boy and left his body on the beach.
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Broadchurch

Great detective series are never about the crimes; they're about great detectives, and BBC America's Broadchurch has one. With a depth that goes beyond formula drama, Olivia Colman plays Ellie Miller, a wife and mother in the sea- side town of Broadchurch, who finds herself investigating the murder of the 11-year-old boy next door, her own son's best friend. Ellie has a practical, crimped hairstyle that may be the worst in the history of haircuts. She wears the drab gray pantsuit that lady-detectives in most crime shows try to glam up; she doesn't. She is empathetic, engaging, and down-to-earth -- qualities that only grow as she slowly realizes that someone in her own apparently wholesome community, someone she has to know, killed that little boy and left his body on the beach.

Ellie's chilly partner, new to Broadchurch, is played by David Tennant with ideal, enigmatic distance. Like almost everyone else in town, he has a secret, although his is less sinister than most: a career-threatening arrhythmic heart he's trying to hide from his superiors.  Together, they sort through the suspects: the vicar who gave computer lessons to kids; the wizened old man who owns the news stand; the woman with a dog who lives in a trailer near the beach; the murdered child's own father. As the suspects' stories and alibis are revealed, it sometimes seem that Broadchurch is overpopulated with people who have come to escape their guilty pasts. Is this the worst town on earth? More likely, as Ellie comes to see, the world is full of more secrets and deceptions than even a tough detective ever imagined.

There's no denying that Broadchurch is based on a generic Agatha-Christie-worthy premise, but the cast lifts every episode; nothing about the series feels stale. Jodie Whittaker is especially wrenching as the murdered child's mother, who doesn't give in to histrionics, but is painfully baffled about how to go on with day-to-day-life. Creator and writer Chris Chibnall (Law and Order UK)  creates a rich texture, while never losing sight of the suspense that drives the plot.

But this would be just another detective series without Colman (who played Thatcher's daughter in Iron Lady, and the abused woman in Tyrannosaur). At the start Ellie is a smart career woman with a happy family life -- her stay-at-home husband cares for their children, including a younger son still in a stroller.  And she insists on the innocence of people who have been her trusted friends and neighbors for years -- until she can't any more. Colman brings Ellie's profound questioning, her sense of morality gone askew, to such vibrant life that they become more than abstract themes; they are her new reality.

Broadchurch became the most-tweeted show in history when it was shown in the UK, and has been renewed for a second season. This week the Fox network announced an American remake. It's easy to see why in every instance.

The enthralling Broadchurch would be perfect for binge-watching, but you'll have to watch the old-fashioned way; the series will be parceled out weekly on BBC America starting  August 7th. The first episode is On Demand on on-line here.

This article is related to: Broadchurch, Olivia Colman, David Tennant, Television, Television, Television, Jodie Whittaker, Chris Chibnall

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