Probably the two greatest advances in western culture in my lifetime have been the Sopranos-style epic serial drama and the advent of TV on demand and/or the DVD box set.
I don’t think I’m saying anything weird or contentious — or indeed original — here. For example, I’m writing these words at the end of a week with the Fawn in the Canaries, a holiday which I just know wouldn’t have been half as pleasurable if we hadn’t been able to retire to our room every evening after another hard day’s beach work to the solace of two more episodes of the Nordic miseryfest that is The Bridge.
And just before we left home we also caught up on a series I know I really ought, as a TV critic, to have raved about when it came out but didn’t because I’m crap that way: Broadchurch.
Broadchurch — series one, at least — really was as good as everyone says it was. That’s why, for the benefit of those of you who still haven’t seen it (as you totally must), I’m going to be careful in this review not to give away any plot spoilers. I know how annoying it would be if I did because that’s what someone did to me when I was out for a ride the other day.
We were sitting on our horses, outside the stables, making small talk as you do, while waiting for everyone to mount up. And I said, ‘God I’m loving Broadchurch. I’m just catching up with the first series.’ And the person to whom I addressed my remark said, ‘Oh yes. It was the BLANKETY BLANK who did it, wasn’t it?’
And I said, ‘Oh. My. God. You’ve just totally ruined the ending for me.’ Then I sulked for the whole of the rest of the ride, only vaguely to be cheered at the end when our riding teacher told me that I’d done amazingly well to have stayed on Freddy in the indoor school because normally he throws absolutely everyone.
Still, I was mightily peeved as you may imagine. One of the many glories of Broadchurch is that it keeps you guessing whodunit (it being the murder of an 11-year-old boy Danny in a pretty Dorset seaside town where everyone knows everyone, and nobody doesn’t have a dark secret) to the point where there’s not a single person you don’t strongly suspect at one point or another. And even then, when the perpetrator’s identity is revealed, it still comes as quite a shock.
So much for series one. The follow-up, unfortunately, is proving a bit of a dud. Though all the same ingredients are there — the cliffs, the pastel-coloured beach houses, Olafur Arnalds’s atmospheric score, the fantastically convoluted plotline, the relentlessly strained relationship between scabrous, unshaven, almost unintelligible Scottish detective inspector Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and his cake-left-out-in-the-rain sidekick Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) — the fatal difference this time is that it has given up respecting the viewer’s intelligence.
With the first series you swallowed the possibility, just about, that the entire population of Broadchurch was either the son/wife/husband/brother/cousin/victim of a paedophile/murderer/psycho because the acting was so good, the characters were so well drawn and the sense of place was so strong that it seemed to be grounded in a sort of reality.
Not with the new one, though (ITV, Mondays). There was a scene during the trial where Danny’s mum was asked a totally irrelevant question about her sex life by the aggressive lead defence barrister. ‘Do I have to answer this?’ she pleaded with the judge, Meera Syal. The judge insisted that she did, much to the chagrin of lead prosecutor Charlotte Rampling and the excitement of the jury (whom we haven’t yet met properly but almost certainly, the way the series’ casting is going, includes Lenny Henry, Gok Wan, Anita Dobson, Britt Ekland, Idris Elba, Madhur Jaffrey, the late Reg Varney…)
‘No, you bloody don’t!’ shouted every viewer in the land — even the ones who aren’t lawyers because we’ve all watched enough court procedural dramas by now to know what the deal is. Danny’s mum wouldn’t have needed to plead with the judge because the judge, had she been doing her job, wouldn’t have allowed it in the first place. And I know I’m right here because I read it in the Mail on Sunday, in an article called ‘Ten reasons Broadchurch has totally lost the plot’, with experts like Helena Kennedy QC piling in to say how they now find the series so riddled with basic errors as to be unwatchable.
Does it matter? I’m afraid it does. It matters in the same way it mattered when they put the wrong types of snake in the pit in Vikings. We viewers invest a lot of time and emotional energy in these series. The characters become like our close friends, their adventures a substitute for our own existence. If series two of Broadchurch wants to set itself up as a courtroom drama without going to the trouble of hiring a legal consultant capable of spotting details as fundamental as the difference between a barrister’s and a judge’s wig, it simply is not worthy of our attention and commitment.