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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Review: Broadchurch Season Two

The second season of Broadchurch ended a few weeks ago, and having been mulling it over in my head since then, the time has come to add my two cents. For the most part I enjoyed it in the way I enjoyed the first season: top-notch acting, beautiful cinematography, a sustained sense of dread and suspense, a few resonant "human touches" (though fewer than last season) and all the show's trademark stylistic features: negative space, shots of people standing ominously against the skyline, David Tennant striding purposefully through the Dorset countryside in slow-motion.
Yet season two took a markedly different trajectory than the first in terms of its storyline – and I think it's to be commended for this. It would have been easy enough to throw Hardy and Miller into a brand new case, one totally disconnected from both their histories and the community of Broadchurch, but instead writer Chris Chibnall opts to explore the emotional toll of a murder trial and return to the Sandbrook case, the murder investigation whose lack of resolution was the cause of Hardy's bad reputation and failing health throughout the first season.
As such, season two really has two distinct plots across its eight episodes, which have next to nothing to do with each other beyond the effect they have on our protagonists.

In the courtroom drama side of the story Joe Miller pleads not guilty to murdering Danny, devastating Ellie and the Latimers and forcing the case to go to trial. Beth and Mark enlist the service of Jocelyn Knight as prosecutor, who comes out of retirement when she discovers that her protégé Sharon Bishop will be the defendant. Partly because she knows how vicious Sharon can be and partly (one suspects) because she has something to prove to her one-time pupil, Jocelyn takes the case.
While all this is going on, Hardy is approached by Claire Ashworth, a suspect in the Sandbrook case that he's been hiding in a cottage on the outskirts of Broadchurch – and is in fact the very reason he accepted the Latimer investigation in the first place. Claire suspects that her husband Lee is tracking her down, a cause for concern considering he was the main suspect in the deaths of a teenage girl and her younger cousin.
Almost immediately, story problems arise. In regards to the court drama, we already know that Joe Miller killed Danny, and so the tension of the plot must rest on something else entirely: whether or not he'll be found guilty. And sure, it's a fairly gripping scene once the jury return to the courtroom with a verdict – but to get to that point we first have to move through the presentation of evidence and witnesses that again – we already know about.
The case against Joe Miller (up to and including a confession) is so watertight that considerable holes must be punched into the proceedings in order for there to be any story here at all, but this results in several rather ludicrous leaps of logic. For instance, the defence manages to get Joe's confession thrown out after arguing it was coerced after Ellie attacked him in the interrogation room – even though there was clear proof (through recordings and security footage) that the confession was given before Ellie confronted Joe.
Later, Sharon accuses Ellie of having an affair with Hardy and manipulating evidence in order to frame Joe, a hypothesis that rests on the nonsensical supposition that Ellie would let her husband be found guilty of murder so that she could carry on an affair with a man she hadn't even met before the murder took place.
Finally, her alternative sequence of events posits that Mark Latimer killed his own son after Danny witnessed him having sex with Becca from the window of the hut, a fabrication that could have been easily disproved if Jocelyn had put Becca on the witness stand in order to corroborate Mark's story.
Oh, and at one point the Judge says: "my rule is to trust the jury; they're usually pretty smart" - at which point I had to pause the episode in order to finish laughing. I had a friend who once served on a jury, in which a considerable amount of time and energy was spent on trying to convince one of their number that he was NOT authorized to determine the length and nature of the offender's sentence, at which point he decided to single-handedly overturn the entire justice system in one afternoon by refusing to deliver a guilty/not guilty verdict.
In regards to the Sandbrook case, I suspect that Chibnall was a little stymied by facts he had already laid down in season one without any thought as to one day having to pick them up again. Namely, the fact that Pippa's pendant was found in the backseat of Lee's car; the stealing of which destroyed the case against him. There are some nice bits of continuity, such as the return of Amanda Drew to play Kate Gillespie, the grieving mother that Beth met with in the first season, but for the most part the mystery is so convoluted as to be nonsensical.
As with Danny Latimer's death, there are no solid clues in the narrative to allow us the chance to figure things out as we go, and ultimately Everybody Did It to such varying degrees that it's not so much a whodunit as a blanket cover-up.
Perhaps the most glaring problem is the characterization of Lee Ashworth, whose behaviour makes absolutely no sense at all. Considering that he DID in fact murder Pippa, the fact that he escaped justice on a technicality and moved to France was the best possible outcome for him. Why try to reopen a case that you KNOW you're guilty of? What exactly was he trying to achieve by hounding Hardy into find out the truth?
The same goes for Claire. Why steal the pendant from the police car? Was it to protect Lee (by keeping him out of prison) or protect herself (by gaining leverage over him)? And if it was for the first reason, then why rely on Hardy for protection? Heck, if it was the second reason, why rely on Hardy for protection? In the first case she's clearly not afraid of Lee being out of prison, and if it's the second reason she's got evidence that will see him locked up. What exactly was her motivation here?
That Claire and Lee continue to interact with the police by their own volition makes no sense. Subconscious self-sabotage? Sociopathic mind games? Plot necessity?
The truth eventually comes out: that Ricky Gillespie killed Lisa in a fit of rage when he sees her having sex with Lee, and for Lee and Claire to subsequently murder his daughter Pippa when they realize she believes Lee killed her older cousin. Caught in a three-way stalemate, Lee, Claire and Ricky each have enough dirt on each other to keep the other two quiet (or so you would think – like I said above, at least two of them can't seem to stop gabbing to the police) and simply wait out the investigation. 
It was the murder of Pippa that really broke my suspension of disbelief. I know Hair-Trigger Tempers can lead to fatal accidents. I know in dire situations people can pressure others into doing crazy things. But it takes a lot to kill a person in cold blood, especially a child, especially one that both individuals not only knew but were clearly very fond of, and there's nothing demonstrated in Lee or Claire's behaviour that would suggest either one would be capable of such a thing.
Heck, not even JOE killed Danny in cold blood.
I'm not entirely sure how I expected this particular plot to be resolved, but I liked the idea that despite first appearances Claire would end up the manipulative one in the Lee/Claire relationship. This did come to pass to some extent, for Claire was clearly pulling the strings when it came to the cover-up, and Lee was initially the only one ready to do the right thing in the immediate aftermath of Lisa's death, but the whole thing quickly reached ridiculous heights with the drugging/smothering of Pippa and the incineration of Lisa's body. Your mileage may vary, but I can't accept that people would be this cool-headed enough in the wake of an accidental murder to so carefully and clinically kill a child and dispose of both their bodies.
I'm not sure anyone would disagree when I say that season two of Broadchurch is considerably less riveting than the first. One of the first season's strengths was the depiction of a close-knit community and how a murder investigation sent shockwaves throughout it.
Whatever its faults (because I still maintain the reveal of Joe as the killer was a cheat), it was a stark portrayal of the grieving process, of the horrible sense of not being able to trust anyone, and of the paranoia that ran through every character as they clutched their secrets close to their chests. Because everyone was a potential suspect, it was an engaging process to consider each of them in turn as their motivations and backstories were gradually uncovered.
But that time around secrecy was part of the show's theme, depicting characters that remained close-lipped in service of the general premise that a small community is so obsessed with keeping up a reputable façade that they'll do anything to hide the truth.
In the second season, this mentality becomes tedious in the characters as well as lazy in the storytelling. Take a shot every time one of the lawyers gives a startled look in court because the other has managed to pull the rug out from under them because the witnesses didn't share all their information despite repeated insistence that they have to.
It extends even to the Sandbrook case, where Kate makes the incomprehensible statement: "what did it have to do with you?" when Hardy learns that Ricky's alibi can no longer be verified. Seriously, Kate? You're asking what that has to do with the police investigation into your child's death? It tips from self-preservation to sheer idiocy.  
The show also struggles with the utilization of its old characters. Though Broadchurch as a community was a fairly crucial construct throughout the first season, the fact that Danny's murder has been solved means that the various residents can no longer be portrayed as potential suspects or as neighbours struggling to cope with the idea of a killer in their midst – and without that there's nothing much for them to do.
Some – like Liz (Beth's mother) and Dean (Chloe's boyfriend) – are culled completely, while the likes of Reverent Paul, Becca Fisher, Maggie Radcliffe and Olly Stevens have only Bit Parts to play. Susan Wright returns, only for her subplot about dying of cancer to be dropped almost instantly after it's been introduced (much like Beth's subplot about trying to help sex offenders), while Maggie's love story with Jocelyn has to vie for time against Jocelyn's concerns about her elderly mother.
One of the surprising gifts of the first season was its ability to portray a range of characters who each had their feet of clay, yet became remarkably sympathetic despite first appearances. Karen White was initially an unscrupulous reporter in search of a scoop; by the end it was revealed she had a very conscientious reason to get involved in this particular case. Susan Wright was a horrendously unpleasant woman until a devastating backstory shed light on her demeanour. Jack Marshall was a convicted sex offender; the truth revealed that conviction was not quite so cut-and-dry.
Yet something of this nuance is lost in season two. In their powerful portrayal of grief and how it shakes you to the core, my heart went out to the Latimers in the first season – yet this time around they become something of a chore to sit through. Grief is a dark and agonising emotion, and though part of me could appreciate that Chibnall wasn't afraid to take Mark and Beth to such an ugly place, the writing gradually turns them into two wholly unpleasant people.
And yes, I realize how terrible it is to say that about deeply traumatized and grieving parents –but hey, they're fictional. Having set Ellie up as our protagonist, it got a bit much to see Beth lambasting her so viciously over things that we know she couldn't possibly be held accountable for, while Mark devolves into a wallowing mass of self-pity (I didn't keep track, but at times it felt as though at least half his lines started with "I...") who refuses to communicate with his wife, puts her through the humiliation of testifying on the stand about wanting to break up with her without informing her beforehand what it was he was going to say, and meeting Tom in secret despite what an obviously terrible idea this is. By the conclusion, I was rooting for Beth to simply leave such a wilfully obtuse man.
If it sounds like I'm being unduly harsh on these two, this general unlikeability extended to most of the cast. Olly is a twat, Nigel is a creep, Lucy is an idiot, Susan is belligerent, and most of the new characters are pretty awful as well – including two of the lawyers and Hardy's ex-wife. Even Ellie and Hardy exchange some pretty nasty swipes at each other. 
Ironically, the one person who does get told "you're a horrible person" is probably the one who LEAST deserves it. Was Abby Thompson a nice person? Not really. But what she did hardly sticks out amidst all the crap everyone else was pulling.
Out of all the cast most of my sympathy lay with Chloe, whose mature ascertainment of the truth from Ellie and her quiet grief after hearing the verdict was far more moving than all her parents' histrionics.
It's a potential hazard to write unlikeable characters, but one worth risking if it can be pulled off successfully. The key is to make such characters interesting despite their unpleasantness – but now with the mystery of Danny's death over with and everyone's dirty laundry hung out to dry, only the unpleasantness remains. It goes to show just how much of the first season's success relied on suspense and atmosphere, for without it the delicate balancing act between "relatable character" and "potential child-killer" is lost.
Granted, I'd rather watch a show like this than one that plays it safe with blandly "likeable" characters, but after a while the sheer nastiness and idiocy on display only creates a sense of apathy as to how things turn out.
But the real appeal of the show remains intact: David Tennant and Olivia Colman as Alec Hardy and Ellie Miller. Their abrasive friendship but effective teamwork is as great as ever, and in this season we see a role reversal of sorts: Ellie slowly regaining her strength while Hardy's health deteriorates.
Ellie is certainly in a bad place when this season starts: estranged from her son and trying to cope with the fact her husband is a child-killer, and so it's a rewarding moment when she finally bares her teeth and fights to reclaim her life. Without articulating it, the tenuous friendship between herself and Hardy is what keeps them both from falling off the edge, if not just because they irritate each other too much to let the other "win". Perhaps the best summation of their relationship can be found in Ellie's line: "My life's gone to shit, may as well help you clean up your mess."
If there was ever a perfect example of "fire-forged friends" it would be these two, and when their mutual frustration at the world builds up to such an extent that they decide to play hardball with everyone who's been jerking them around, it feels like a real victory.
Everything is grounded by their performances, and as long as they remain as they are now, the show will be imminently watchable.
Miscellaneous Observations:
I trust I wasn't the only one to find it immensely disconcerting to concurrently watch James D'Arcy as violent, brutish Lee and as kindly fusspot Jarvis over on Agent Carter.  
I've always liked Eve Myles (partly in response to the ludicrous amounts of hate she got on Torchwood), and she projects a sort of genial nature despite playing such a dodgy character. Though I can't help but suspect she wasn't clued in as to her character's true motivations until very late in the game – like Matthew Gravelle in season one, she's clearly not playing the same character in the final episode as she was in the preceding seven.
There was some good stuff to appreciate in season two, especially on the representation front. That the court trial is preceded over by three women (two of colour, one a lesbian, all over forty) was certainly not lost on me, all the more so because their inclusion was not trumpeted or questioned, but simply allowed to exist.
And sure, their backstories (ensuing blindness and an incarcerated son) weren't particularly fleshed out (neither one had much bearing on the story: the former didn't affect Jocelyn's performance and the latter had so little context that for all we knew Sharon's son deserved to be in prison) but that they even existed in the first place is a cause for some celebration.
True story though: there was a letter sent to my local paper that complained about how "unrealistic" it was to have three women working in a courtroom – a letter sent in by a woman no less! Oy.
Odd that there was never any sign of Lisa's parents.
Ah, what would Broadchurch be without those shots of people staring threateningly at the camera from a distance? (Though in this case, it was mostly Lee).

Did anyone else find Becca Fisher's continued presence borderline funny? It was weird enough that she attended Danny's memorial service last season (though at least there she was in a different location than the Latimer family) but here she kept turning up at the courtroom when it was clearly inappropriate for her to do so. Perhaps it's just because we share the same name that I was so bemused by her inability to just lay low.
If anything, the show does continue nicely in its theme of human foibles – not just as it's found in individuals, but in human nature, from the frustration of police in dealing with close-lipped witnesses, to the prosecution failing because Jocelyn wasn't given the information she needed to counteract the defence, and the jury itself – so afraid of sending a potentially innocent man to jail that they let a definitely guilty man walk free.
So that was season two – and apparently a third has already been commissioned. Despite my lukewarm feelings on season two, I'm actually fairly optimistic about the prospect. The show can no longer sustain the strength of the first season (the portrayal of grief, the portrait of a small community) and with Joe's trial and the Sandbrook case wrapped up, its selling point and last great strength is now Hardy and Ellie. To remove them from Broadchurch and give them a brand new case to work on would re-galvanise the show and allow Olivia Colman and David Tennant the chance to build on their teamwork chemistry. Let's just hope Chibnall gets the memo, and doesn't devote the third season to Joe attempting to see his children and getting murdered in the process.

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