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Broadchurch: The best stories raise questions

I expected a typical British police drama when I queued up the six-episode miniseries, Broadchurch. Instead, I discovered a gripping tale along the lines of P.D. James that pulls us not only into the mystery behind a murder but also an unsettling exploration of who we are.

Broadchurch is a small community on the coast of England suddenly unraveled by the death of an 11 year old boy found murdered on the beach beneath a looming cliff. As Danny’s death is investigated by newly appointed Detective Inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and town resident Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman), we are confronted with the brokenness of human nature and our capacity for (self)deception, narrow-mindedness, and destruction—and how actions born of those things affect us and those around us. Broadchurch explores the things that bring us together and tear us apart. It explores how we see the things we want to see and don’t see the things we need to see. And it wrestles with our basic need for love in a culture of crowded isolation—and how that makes it difficult for us to love and be loved.
Central to the story is a search for truth and how to live life in its wake—and that search raises more questions than it answers. But that’s what good stories do. Recently, during a panel for The Giver at San Diego Comic-Con, author Lois Lowry reflected on the power of good stories. “I think the best books raise questions rather than give answers,” she reflects. “The best books don't have messages because there are different answers to those questions.”
And as Broadchurch unfolds, so do the questions. Why do we do the things we do—even when we know we will hurt others? We all need to be loved and to love others—but what inside us twists the need for love into something selfish and dark? Why do we know so little of each other? What keeps us from seeing the hurt, suffering and pain in those around us—or do we simply choose not to?

The series displays the power of learning another’s story in confronting and exploring these questions. As we learn the characters’ stories—especially those of the suspects—more times than not, they are not who we thought. We begin to understand their actions, which often rise out of suffering, wounds, shame or fear. It changes the way we see them—and, in most cases, it gives us some measure of compassion.

The series reminds me that who we are and the relationships we share with each other are complex; by knowing each other’s stories, we close the gaps between us, and that makes for a more authentic community. But it also makes me think about how little we know most of the people around us. It makes me contemplate the things that keep us from knowing each other—both within us as well as in our culture.

I was particularly drawn to the story of Ellie Miller, who has never investigated a death before. At first, she’s disturbed and irritated by Hardy’s constant reminder to watch and take note of the people around her as they try to figure out who killed Danny. At one point, Ellie laments the person she has become, open to suspecting her friends and neighbors of having the capacity to murder a child.

But, as Hardy tells her early on, we all have that capacity. The evil out there is in us as well. And one of the uncomfortable strengths of this series is how skillfully it confronts us with the awful truth of our capacity for harming others, often those closest to us. Marital affairs, substance abuse, accusations out of fear, turning a blind eye to suffering—all those times we put our own selfish desires and needs before that of others lead to actions like these.

The characters give us a difficult gift: they show us who we are and could become. How do we respond to that, in ourselves and others? With compassion? Disgust? Humility? Love?

There are some interesting moments of hope in the story, most having to do with our capacity to choose a different path. In one of those, Broadchurch’s young vicar tells the community that they’ve failed the second of the commandments, to love one’s neighbor—which literally led to a physical death but has the potential to lead to the death of their community. The inclusion of such a moment in the story allows us to consider a different way through our messy, broken lives.
Broadchurch reminds us that the way of love often isn’t easy. Love requires confession, forgiveness, and truth. And in this story, truth is a surgeon’s tool, cutting deep into our nature and exposing the cancer from which we all are dying. The series’ portrayal of the complex ways we respond to that is part of what makes Broadchurch so noteworthy.

I appreciate that faith is a theme in Broadchurch—especially that honest questions are voiced, easy answers are hard to come by, and struggles with faith and God are portrayed; those are parts of our journey that don’t get a lot of air-time on television or in church culture. But its impact on the characters and how they approach their struggles is rather limited—at least, in this part of the story. Apparently, series creator Chris Chibnall (Life on Mars, Doctor Who, Torchwood) originally envisioned a trilogy of stories, and another installment with most of the key cast members was announced in May. It will be interesting to see if and how this thread is continued.

There are lots of meaningful and revelatory moments in Broadchurch, most of which I can’t talk about without spoiling those moments. You’ll just have to watch for yourself—but watch it before the American version, Gracepoint (also penned by Chibnall and starring Tennant), comes out this fall. While Gracepoint’s trailer is almost word-for-word and scene-for-scene the same as Broadchurch’s first couple of episodes, Chibnall promises it will diverge after that. It will be interesting to see if it carries the same themes and weight as the original.