The 2013 ITV series Broadchurch was a single-story, eight-episode arc that began with the discovery of the body of 11-year-old Danny Latimer on the beach of the small Dorsetine tourist town and followed the investigation led by new Detective Inspector Alec Hardy and Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller, whose son Tom was Danny’s best friend. The series focused on the personal impacts of Danny’s death and the subsequent revelations uncovered by the police, the media (local and national), and through the consequences of the various questions those entities ask of anyone who might have been connected to the crime. By splitting the show’s attention across two foci, the writers gave us something we seldom see: a show about a murder that depicted real grief, sorrow, anger, and denial. The script gave the characters the space to develop the depth to make them play like real people, able to show a broad range of traits and emotions that don’t appear in shows that try to tell a story in just 44 minutes.
Broadchurch earned broad critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, winning the BAFTA for best drama in 2013 while Olivia Colman won best actress for her performance as D.S. Miller and David “Argus Filch” Bradley won for best supporting actor for his role as Jack Marshall. Alan Sepinwall of HitFix named it one of his top 20 shows of 2013 as well. The show was a huge commercial success in the U.K., and will return for a second season next month, even though its creators originally conceived the series as a one-and-done.
Of course, this called for an American-made version to air on a U.S. network, because God forbid anyone ask us to watch a show that isn’t set here. At times a shot-for-shot remake of the original, Gracepoint lengthened the series by 25%, spending more time with side characters and misdirections that blurred the sharp focus of Broadchurch on the people involved. The superlative cast of the American series continually delivered, with David Tennant reprising his role as D.I. Hardy (renamed Emmett Carver, because reasons), two-time Emmy winner Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad) as Ellie, two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) as Susan Wright, and three-time Oscar nominee Nick Nolte as the renamed Jack Reinhold. I doubt any will receive major award nominations, given the mediocre reception critics gave the remake, but all four were above the threshold for consideration, especially Weaver. However, the story meandered away from the heart of what made Broadchurch great – the focus on the emotional lives of its characters – in what I think was a misguided attempt to heighten the mystery, which misunderstood the point of the original series entirely.
I’m still convinced the main reason FOX chose to remake Broadchurch rather than air the original is the accents. David Tennant’s Scottish accent isn’t as easy to understand as an upper-class English accent would be, and I think in general there’s a belief in Hollywood that Americans won’t watch a TV show where all of the dialogue comes at them in the King’s English. (You’d think by now the success of Downton Abbey would have left that myth as dead as a doornail.) The former part I can understand – I had a few instances where I had to rewind to catch something Tennant said – but I hold no truck with the latter. And FOX made the innkeeper character Becca into English expatriate (named Gemma) on Gracepoint, even though she wasn’t American on Broadchurch.
Such changes in characters made up the bulk of the gap between the American and British versions of the show, and in almost every instance, the alterations were for the worse. Gracepoint appeared to be trying far too hard to appeal to the audience, commensurate with the #SuspectEveryone marketing campaign, with multiple characters rewritten or recast to be more suspicious or just creepier:
* The vicar Paul Coates is just that, a clergyman who runs the town’s computer club for kids and plays the peacemaker in a town with few churchgoers; the American priest Paul has carried a torch for Danny’s mom for over a decade, and becomes increasingly forward with her rather than just providing comfort and counsel, while he engages in a sort of cold war with her husband, Mark.
* Both versions of Mark commit the same transgressions, but the American one is colder to his wife, openly hostile to Paul, and miserly with his employee Vince.
* Vince – called Nige in the British version, which won’t do because no one born in America has ever been named “Nige” – is an angry but sometimes well-meaning simpleton in Broadchurch; his American counterpart is constantly scowling, is more devious and greedy than Nige, and is shown butchering something (which turns out to be a deer he shot) in his shed.
* Susan Wright is irredeemable in both versions, but she’s far more sinister in the remake, appearing to threaten Tom and frequently seen spying on others’ in the background; the only time she reveals her true nature in the original is the threat to Maggie.
* Maggie, meanwhile, was turned into a bad punchline in Gracepoint. The original Maggie receives no backstory; we hear nothing of a personal life or her orientation. The American version is a lesbian who says she “realized (she) didn’t like penises,” and is given a raccoon-like hairstyle that ages her at least ten years. (I assumed her character was supposed to be in her late 40s or early 50s, given her looks and demeanor, but the actress portraying her is only 38.) There was no point to revealing Kathy’s orientation other than to provide a token gay character and play it for that one cheap laugh; her personal life never comes into play in the story, and she’s largely a minor character the rest of the way.
* Karen White, the big-city reporter in Broadchurch, shows actual signs of humanity when her articles on Jack are rewritten to vilify the shopkeeper, and again at the end of episode eight when she twice shows her remorse through tiny yet significant actions. Her American doppelganger, Renee Clemons, has no second dimension beyond her ambition, and appears to be there just to look hot and annoy the viewers with her lack of empathy. She doesn’t appear at all in the Gracepoint finale.
* Even Chloe’s character changed, although at least the Gracepoint actress looked like she could possibly be the biological child of the two actors playing her parents. The American version was more rebellious, and what was an innocent “happy room” her boyfriend created for her in Broadchurch became a more sexualized dance in the bar area by the docks.
There were character shifts in the American version that worked, but those appeared more organic, the result of different casting rather than changes in dialogue or actions. Anna Gunn’s Ellie is a stronger character from start to finish – less mousy, more vocal, less tolerant of Carver’s indignities as they happen, although in the end none of it amounts to much given the conclusion of the story. Jacki Weaver, who was amazing as the matriarch of an Australian crime family in Animal Kingdom, made Susan Wright more three-dimensional with her portrayal, making her seem almost addled at times even as she reveals herself to be vindictive. I found it easier to accept her as a victim than the English version, played more stoically by Pauline Quirke. (According to the Broadchurch wikia, Vince the dog was played Quirke’s dog Bailey.)
Tennant’s performances varied beyond the shift to an American accent – which never bothered me in the least, although I’ve seen several critics harp on it as a problem for them – as he was more curt and dismissive with Ellie in Gracepoint, lacking the signs of empathy he flickered in the last few episodes of Broadchurch. His heart ailment seemed to only factor into the core narrative as a way to force a time limit on the investigation, since he has just a few hours to finish the case before he’s forced to take a medical leave. However, the American remake’s insertion of his daughter as a brief subplot proved a complete waste of time, a way to stretch the original series by 88 minutes of content.
Red herrings – like the backpacker, who was a total dead end – ended up giving Gracepoint a sense of density and slower pacing than Broadchurch with no added payoff; if anything, the result was a net negative, taking a series that focused exceptionally well on the emotional impacts of the murder of a child and the ensuing investigation and turning it into a murder mystery. American police procedurals rarely give much if any screen time to grief; we get a quick police interview with the next of kin, some tears or perhaps some wailing, and then we don’t see the family member again unless s/he is the killer. Broadchurch threw that script out the window; the fabric of Danny’s family starts to strain at the seams, while the investigation ruins one man’s life and exposes secrets and lies in those of several others. The finale of Broadchurch was more British than any other aspect of the series: It was slow by design, so that the viewer couldn’t help but linger over the wounds opened or reopened by the revelation of the killer’s identity, followed by the beautifully shot memorial, for a much stronger buildup to Paul’s “I passed the word; maybe the word was good” response that closes the season.
Below this point, I’ll discuss the ending and the identity of the murder. If you haven’t watched either series, you may wish to stop now.
The writers made a slight change to the conclusion of Broadchurch when remaking it as Gracepoint, although the shift was as much about motive as it was identity, providing a much less satisfying explanation in the end while also straining credibility around Tom’s ability to keep his part of the secret from his mom for the entire length of the investigation. It points, again, to the American version’s compulsion to sharpen its edges, which felt to me like a way of talking down to an American audience that FOX felt wanted a bigger emotional impact. (The conclusion didn’t matter for viewership, though; the series was DOA after the first week’s ratings were weak, something I blame on FOX marketing the show strictly as a murder mystery rather than as a high-quality drama.)
Danny’s murder at the hands of Joe was half a surprise, because the writers shoved it in our faces in the penultimate episode’s confrontation between Ellie and Susan outside the police station, where Ellie asks Susan,
“How could you not know?” and thus sets herself up for an ironic outcome where she learns just how Susan might not have known what was happening in her own house. That heavy-handedness aside, however, the writers did a better job planting the seeds for Joe’s role in Danny’s death in both versions of the show, depicting him at various points as a devoted father and husband who finds himself gradually fading in importance from the lives of his wife and older son. It was a simple explanation, one that took place right under the noses of everyone in town, and Danny’s death is the result of the unmollified rage of a repressed pedophile. Gracepoint made Joe’s attraction to Danny more explicit, and turned Danny’s death into a tragic accident that involved Tom, who was trying to protect his friend, not hurt him. Such things can happen, of course, but the crime was no longer a murder, but the ensuing coverup by Joe. It felt like a change for change’s sake, made because the American series had to offer a different ending.
As odd as it might seem, I’d still recommend both series. If you only want to make the time investment in one, make it Broadchurch – it’s better written, has much more heart, and is 88 minutes shorter. You still get David Tennant, and several of the secondary characters, especially the vicar Paul, get more sympathetic/less prejudicial treatment. But Gracepoint has equal or better performances from several cast members, and because the central story is so similar it’s no less compelling, just a little out of focus when compared to the superior source material.