Of the many, many recent dramas about the murder of a child — that plot line fast-track to viewers’ hearts — the first season of “Broadchurch” in 2013 was a peak. The British show opened with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Danny Latimer, and it unfolded into a rich portrait of familial grief, communal suspicion, and the impact of media attention on an investigation. On one level, the season was a tight mystery with a few red herrings; on a deeper level, it was an emotionally charged and intimate story of betrayal. Across eight wrenching episodes, we watched a picture-perfect seaside town lose its innocence.
Many fans of season one — and there were very many in the UK, where it was a smash hit of nearly “Downton Abbey”-like proportions — were nervous about the show’s return for a second season. The surprise reveal of the murderer, and that person’s twisted pathology, left us with a thoroughly satisfying ending for the first round. The season felt so seamlessly self-contained; why not just leave it be, a rewarding little miniseries floating on its own in the telesphere? Creator Chris Chibnall has said that was his original intent. And American fans were particularly anxious about more “Broadchurch” after having been exposed to the weak Fox adaptation called “Gracepoint,” which featured the disappointing sight of “Broadchurch” star David Tennant playing the same role with an American accent. Not exactly the dog’s bollocks, as they say.
What a relief, then, to find that the first four episodes of season two, which premieres on BBC America on Wednesday at 10 p.m., are a promising continuation of season one. With natural logic, the story extends to the trial of (and from here on out in this review, I’m going to spoil season one, so get out and get binging if you haven’t seen it) the husband of Detective Ellie Miller, Joe Miller. The first season was the “Law,” in a way, and the second season is the “& Order,” as all of the primary characters gather in the courtroom to see the thing through. Knowing what we know from season one, the trial should be a breeze, right?
Yeah, no. The pivotal moment in the premiere comes when Joe Miller unexpectedly decides to plead not guilty at his hearing and gets lawyered up with Londoner Sharon Bishop. Played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1997 for “Secrets & Lies,” Bishop brings persistence and ferocity to her defense of Miller — perhaps because she has a history with the prosecutor, Jocelyn Knight. Played by Charlotte Rampling, Knight is a retired lawyer who lives in Broadchurch and knows many of the people in the case. She resists taking it, anxious about her own abilities, but ultimately gives in. Both Rampling and especially Jean-Baptiste are welcome additions, playing what could become a rough game of insecurity and confidence.
Ellie Miller, played with lovely sensitivity and sorrow by Olivia Colman, is back, and she’s a broken woman now, a local pariah. She is no longer partnered with Tennant’s Detective Alex Hardy, but Chibnall clearly understands that part of what made season one special was the sparky dynamic between the two, so he finds a way to get them back together. And he adjusts their relationship so that now Ellie is the more brooding of the two, with Hardy doing his best to bolster her confidence and be her friend. He no longer seems to feel she’s beneath him, as he did in season one. They don’t have schmaltzy moments, of course, but they seem more at ease with each other.
Hardy is also dealing with loose ends from the Sandbrook murder case that brought him to Broadchurch initially, the botched case involving the disappearance of two young sisters that tainted his career. It turns out Hardy is still working the investigation and in contact with one of its significant figures, played by Eve Myles from “Torchwood.”
The second plot line makes this new season of “Broadchurch” less straightforward than the first, as the action bounces between them. Also, the show no longer has that compelling air of discovery about it, since we know many of the characters well. But still, all of the small-town tensions and relationship undercurrents remain as direct and immediate and engaging as ever. One word: phew.