This review contains spoilers.
Rewind two years and the atmosphere surrounding the new series of Broadchurch was one of gentle hysteria. Preview access was fiercely guarded and press releases were accompanied by secrecy oaths sworn in blood. The success of the first run and the anticipation for its sequel were so great that it felt less like series two was airing than making an official state visit.
No show can bear the weight of that much expectation. The frenzy drained away and the follow-up was tossed like a limp dog toy between snapping muzzle headlines about falling ratings. Millions kept watching but the popular mood wasn’t as gripped this time around. (Little wonder when you remember ‘who killed Danny Latimer?’ soared past ‘Saddam is captured’ and ‘Britney shaves head’ on the official chart of twenty-first century public obsessions, eventually coming to settle slightly below ‘Diana’s Funeral’.)
After a rewatch and some time to reflect, it’s clear that series two was both better and worse than it was accused of being at the time. By me and by everyone else.
Series three arrives in a very different atmosphere – a calmer, more expectations-managed mood. Knowing that this is our final trip to the town of Broadchurch before creator Chris Chibnall takes over on Doctor Who, the new episodes are approached with less frenzy and more fond goodwill. We want Hardy and Miller back, and we want this series to be good.
More than that, we need it to be good and for one reason in particular: it’s about sexual assault. A misjudged, tabloidy rape story with this much exposure wouldn’t just be disappointing, it’d be harmful to the ongoing fight against ingrained victim-blaming attitudes that keep reporting rates low and conviction rates even lower.
Judging by the extreme care taken in episode one’s opening scenes, nobody feels the weight of that responsibility more than Broadchurch’s creators. They’ve answered the subject matter’s fragility with prudence and discretion, making Julie Hesmondhalgh’s Trish the focus before we’re reintroduced to our two detectives. If this didn’t sound so wrong, what we’re presented with is a dream sexual assault reporting scenario. Trish is treated with the compassion, competence and dignity you’d wish for every victim while uncomfortably knowing that it isn’t what’s always provided.
It’s not all perfect. Later, newcomer DC Harford (Georgina Campbell) questions the veracity of Trish’s statement and her delay in coming forward. By voicing that attitude, especially from another woman, Broadchurch demonstrates the pervasiveness of the assumption that victims routinely lie about rape.
The effect of those opening scenes is harrowing, rightly so. With barely a word, Hesmondhalgh makes you feel deeply for her character. The quiet shock of those early scenes and the professionalism and warmth of Hardy and Miller throw you right back into the heart of Broadchurch series one, which was always much more a portrait of trauma and grief’s effects on a community than it was a whodunit sweepstake.
That said, by the end of episode one a suspect list has emerged. The pre-meditated attack has left arrows pointing in several possible directions. One leads towards Trish’s boss Ed (Lenny Henry); another to her estranged husband Ian (Charlie Higson), glimpsed so far only in a photograph; another to her colleague’s husband Jim (Mark Bazeley) who keeps in his glovebox the same condoms a partial wrapper of which was found at the crime scene; and another to the neighbour who watched Trish’s return home from his car. Over the next seven weeks that list will grow and shrink alongside our certainty over the identity of Trish’s attacker.
The investigation is only ever part of Broadchurch’s appeal. The rest lies in its characters and the bickering rapport between Hardy and Miller, which pleasingly, hasn’t changed a jot. Miller’s still Hardy’s dragon tamer, hitting him with a stick when he’s rude and sending him off to the kettle when he steps over the line. “It’s not Trumpton” she snaps when he’s surprised that the local girl she doesn’t already know Trish. The angrier this pair get, the more we like them. The energy of those two pissing each other off is the dynamo that powers Broadchurch.
Well that, and its down-to-earth tone. Miller munches a days-old goody bar as she visits the crime scene where Brian SOCO dubs Hardy “Shitface”. Blending those moments of relatable levity with seriousness has always been the Broadchurch way. That combination of the everyday and the blessedly rare is what makes it feel so appealingly rooted in the real world.
In that light, the farm shop already feels much more on-brand as a location than series two’s courtroom. And we’ve barely met them, but the handful of new characters (Ed, Jim, Sarah Parish’s Cath) feel lived-in, their roles smoothly folded in with the series one cast.
The latter’s domestic arrangements have changed since we saw them last. Beth and Mark Latimer are separated, Miller’s bereaved father has moved in with her and the boys, and Hardy’s teenage daughter Daisy is now living with him. The shuffle throws up numerous storytelling possibilities, just as the sub-plot about Tom’s suspension from school throws up opportunities for a complementary discussion about sex, porn and rape culture.
As the waves rolled onto that famous beach in this episode’s opening seconds, they symbolically carried off all the series two baggage with the tide. What remained were the true bones of this drama: the human cost of a devastating crime.
It may well be too soon to say, but it feels as though Broadchurch is back to its best.
Read Louisa’s review of the Broadchurch series two finale here.