'Broadchurch' Proved Brits Make Better TV Than Americans

With a rich selection of British TV series to watch, two police procedurals – ‘Unforgotten’ and ‘Broadchurch’ – demonstrate why the Brits have an advantage over their American counterparts

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Olivia Colman and David Tennant in 'Broadchurch.'
Olivia Colman and David Tennant in 'Broadchurch.'Credit: Colin Hutton, Kudos/ITV

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the British make great television, tea, sandwiches and lovers (yes, I know what you’re thinking – sandwiches?!). The first of those is thanks largely to the annual $180 license fee that all television-owning Brits must pay, giving public broadcaster the BBC an enviable budget to produce programming with three aims: to inform, educate and entertain.

The first two of these so-called “Reithian values” (named for John Reith, the first BBC director general) are well served by Auntie Beeb’s high-quality radio and TV documentaries and news broadcasts, while the third has been achieved in recent years by a spate of acclaimed scripted shows (to say nothing of the phenomenon that was “The Great British Bake Off”). Full disclosure: I spent nearly a decade working at the BBC in the 2000s.

Here are a few examples of great BBC dramas currently on Israeli screens: “The Missing” (Yes Oh, Tuesdays-Thursdays); “Happy Valley” (Yes Stars Drama, Fridays); “The Night Manager” (currently being repeated on Channel 1, Fridays at 22:00); “Inside No. 9” (BBC Entertainment, Tuesdays at 00.15); and “Peaky Blinders” (HOT VOD Xtra).

I’m not revealing anything new here when noting the big advantage British network television has over its American counterpart: Its shows are generally short-order series written by one or two people (a model also increasingly adopted by cable channels in the United States). It’s very rare for a British season to be more than six to eight episodes, meaning stories are tight and focused, unlike their (often) 24-part U.S. equivalents: it’s like having an artist create a painting for one room rather than telling them to decorate an entire house.

Ironically, though, the shows that are the British TV industry’s biggest exports are the ones I avoid with a passion: Medical dramas like “Call the Midwife,” “Casualty” and “Doctors” (all on BBC Entertainment) make me break out in a rash; while I have a doctor’s note that allows me to skip the likes of “Downton Abbey,” “Poldark” and “Victoria” due to my chronic period-drama pains.

Like those fusty costume dramas that have become the preserve (some would say literally) of PBS’ “Masterpiece” slot in the United States, British television has also long excelled at a particular genre that could seem counterintuitive to foreign eyes: the police thriller. After all, many folks’ view of British policing is encapsulated by this Robin Williams joke: “In England, if you commit a crime, the police don’t have a gun and you don’t have a gun. If you commit a crime, the police will say ‘Stop, or I’ll say stop again.’”

Gem of a drama

But as the likes of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham knew long ago, you don’t need a gun to commit a murder – just a motive.

Britain’s main commercial channel, ITV, has produced one bona fide smash, “Broadchurch,” which I’ll discuss here. But it’s also made a real gem of a drama in “Unforgotten” (second season now on Yes Oh, Fridays and Thursdays at 23.00; a third season has just been commissioned).

It’s a procedural with a difference (that’s what they all say, but this time it’s true). A small police unit, led by Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar, better known as a comedian in Britain), is tasked with ascertaining the identity of a John Doe whose decaying body is discovered many years after death, and whether it was murder most foul (non-spoiler alert: it was).

Unmemorable title aside, the six-part “Unforgotten” is a simple but incredibly effective “jigsaw puzzle” of a show. It’s blessed with a great ensemble cast and the ability to drip-feed information about a seemingly random group of characters who are connected to the central mystery. (This is a skill it shares with the aforementioned “The Missing” – which ITV also developed, before stupidly deciding to pass on what turned out to be one of the best shows of the decade.)

But while “Unforgotten” is a quality show, “Broadchurch” is a phenomenon. Four years ago, its first season did the seemingly impossible and had Brits talking about an ITV scripted drama again. It was as if the Fox network suddenly produced the watercooler moment of the year. The only thing more shocking would have been former London Mayor Ken Livingstone saying something nice about Israel.

The general consensus was that season one – in which police detectives Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) investigate the murder of a young boy, Danny Latimer, in a small coastal resort in southern England – was colossal; while the second season – covering the subsequent murder trial – was a disappointment. (HOT VOD Xtra is showing all three seasons from this Wednesday, April 26.)

I wouldn’t go that far. Season two of “Broadchurch” was still absorbing television – mainly due to the presence of Charlotte Rampling and Marianne Jean-Baptiste as rival barristers facing off in court. The problem for some was that it wasn’t a facsimile of season one.

Well, the good news for those who didn’t share my enthusiasm for season two is that the third and final season of “Broadchurch” (ah, if only we could have said the same about “Sherlock”) is most definitely a return to the brilliant storytelling style of the original season – and will most definitely not be confused with the ill-conceived U.S. remake, “Gracepoint,” which also starred Tennant.

The final season starts with a brilliant opening shot, which may get viewers lachrymose in record time. (Paul Andrew Williams directed the first three episodes, and the fact that an award-winning British filmmaker is working in television speaks volumes about the state of both industries in Britain.)

This time around, detectives Hardy and Miller are investigating the rape of a 49-year-old woman, but the ghosts of previous seasons still haunt the town. Beth Latimer (Jodie Whittaker), whose 11-year-old son Danny was murdered in season one, is now a rape crisis adviser (her term), while her now-estranged husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) has written what was meant to be a cathartic book about their ordeal, but is still doing a passable impression of a wasp trapped in a jar.

What elevates “Broadchurch” above other crime dramas is its empathy for its characters’ travails and, of course, the enduring chemistry between the two leads. Tennant competes with the stunning clifftop vistas to see who boasts the most rugged features, while Colman is a wonderful mixture of compassion, dedication, frustration and anger. It’s a one-woman master class in which the tiniest of facial expressions reveals the anguish beneath, aided by creator/writer Chris Chibnall’s sensitive script (although he still owes a big debt to the first season of the sensationalDanish drama “The Killing”).

Chibnall’s next job is showrunner of “Doctor Who.” Whovians can only hope he succeeds in making the venerable show half as arresting as “Broadchurch.”