On old-school murder-of-the-week shows in the “Law & Order” mold, the murder victim’s family generally appears for a scene or two. They drop a few tears, perhaps, or they conspicuously don’t, in which case we are meant to wonder if they’re somehow involved in the homicide. They’re usually little more than pieces on the black-and-white whodunit chessboard.
But the newer cable crime dramas, including “The Killing” and, now, BBC America’s first-rate “Broadchurch,” are taking the time to reveal how family members and everyone in physical or emotional proximity to the dead person are affected. They have “Twin Peaks” at their root, to some extent, with its long-arced “Who Killed Laura Palmer” approach. At their best, these shows are as much about the shattering and dislodging impact of murder on the living as they are about procedural crime-solving. They are portraits of grief, guilt, blame, revelation, and sorrow, and they are usually stylized with strong atmospherics, most notably the always rainy and foggy Seattle of “The Killing.”
“Broadchurch” is an eight-part series that was nearly a “Downton Abbey”-size hit in the UK, where it recently aired. A second season has already been ordered from show creator Chris Chibnall, but the murder case at the center of this season is definitely solved by the end. That case begins when 11-year-old Danny Latimer is found at the bottom of a cliff on a beach in the small coastal town of Broadchurch. In a powerful early scene, his mother, Beth (Jodie Whittaker), is stuck in a traffic jam caused by the police response to finding Danny’s body, and she runs from her stopped car all the way to the beach with an intuitive sense that Danny is involved. Her body pulls her to that of her dead son. Whittaker is consistently moving as the distraught mother, whose 15-year marriage to the cagey Mark (Andrew Buchan) is already strained before the tragedy.
With each sharply written episode, we learn more and more about Danny, his parents, his 15-year-old sister, his friends, and other members of the close-knit town, including the local journalists and a priest (Arthur Darvill). As secret after secret emerges, we see how, despite its charm, Broadchurch is not as quaint and harmless as it appears. The name of the lead detective on the Latimer murder case is Alec Hardy (David Tennant), and I suspect Chibnall gave him that last name as a nod to writer Thomas Hardy, whose towns and characters are painted with similarly somber emotional hues. The sun comes out on “Broadchurch” more than it does on “The Killing,” but there is darkness aplenty lurking inside its inhabitants.
The backbone of the narrative is the two mismatched detectives thrown together to work on solving Danny’s murder. Detective Hardy is a brusque fellow from out of town, recently recruited to the local force. He has a secret of his own, involving the case of another murdered child, and Tennant renders his deep internal struggles both subtly and unforgettably. His distant objectivity is in direct opposition to Detective Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), an emotional local cop who identifies heavily with Danny’s parents. Indeed, her son and Danny were friends. Colman is lovely, as she works to toughen herself up as unappealing facts about her hometown surface. When the show starts, she unwisely admits to accidentally leaking the identity of the dead boy to the press; later on, as Hardy influences her, she learns to keep her cards much closer to her chest.
“Broadchurch,” which premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on BBC America, may peter out by the end; that’s always a risk when it comes to elongated criminal cases on TV. As the shadow of suspicion falls on character after character, viewer burnout is a possibility. But the first few episodes of this import promise no slack — and plenty of poignancy — as the story line moves closer to the truth of the matter.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.