Let’s begin with a necessary disclaimer. There is no reason to remake a show for an English-speaking market that was already in English, especially just a year past the original’s premiere.
Gracepoint is the American remake of British crime drama Broadchurch, which ended its first and so far only season back in the early days of television: April 2013.
Thinking that in 2014, with near unlimited access to entertainment and content, Americans won’t seek out Broadchurch if they want to want Broadchurch is a particularly egregious misunderstanding of the American public from an industry already famous for misunderstanding the American public.
But here Gracepoint is, with the same showrunner (Chris Chibnall), same star (One time Doctor, David Tennant) and presumably the same plotline as its British cousin. I say “presumably” same plotline as I’ve made the decision to not watch or otherwise learn anything about the original Broadchurch. I find the concept of remaking a year old show already in English for an American audience so hateful that it’s only fair to Gracepoint to not constantly compare it to Broadchurch and to try to appreciate it on its own merit.
Even with that ground rule in place, however, there’s not much to appreciate in Gracepoint.
To be fair, “Episode One” at least establishes its mission statement early on. The show provides snapshots of a quiet American town on a silent night. The streets are empty, but the sign on the door of the local newspaper says “Celebrating the Every day” and the church’s marquee commands “Love thy neighbor as thyself” – an interesting take on platitudes that pop up in small town life that the citizens have long stopped noticing.
Then a young Danny Solano ominously approaches the edge of a large cliff and we cut to the following morning. Danny is presumably dead and we have the increasingly common joy on television of waiting for his family to find out.
Yes, Gracepoint is another murder show because The Killing got four seasons and the world is crazy.
It’s not a capital crime to want to use a concept as emotionally charged as the murder of a young boy to explore the dynamics of a small town. But it is a crime to be this lazy about it. And by exploring both murder and small town America, Gracepoint has the rare opportunity to completely botch both, but for different reasons.
Most, if not all, viewers have a rough understanding of how a close-knit community in 2014 operates. And they know it’s not the Mayberry-by-way-of-Goodfellas tracking shot of Danny’s father, Mark (Michael Peña), sauntering through the center of town, talking to seemingly every citizen. Danny’s mom, Beth, is literally a soccer mom, as though the only thing British creator Chris Chibnal ever heard about America was the 1996 Presidential election. Do mothers take their kids to soccer practice in 2014 America? Of course they do. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lazy heuristic for character building.
And while our familiarity with day-to-day small town life quickly reveals the lazy world-building in Gracepoint, our unfamiliarty with police work and murder investigations is equally harmful. Thankfully, very few people know the emotions and sensations accompanying a murder investigation. Gracepoint doesn’t have the commanding directorial presence to assure people that what they’re seeing resonates emotionally.
Would Detective Ellie Miller (Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn) respond so emotionally to a murder scene if she knows the victim? Would Detective Emmett Carver (Tennant) react so coldly just because he’s from out of town and clearly a type-A hardass? The show doesn’t convince us that they would, so we can only assume they’re relying on tried and true detective show clichés, which they probably are.
Still, when the family drama and police investigation intersect, it does lead to the best moment of the episode and the most promising indicator for Gracepoint’s future.
Beth has not heard from Danny all day and begins to suspect the worst. Her suspicions are all but confirmed when she hears about a dead body being discovered at the beach and races past the police caution tape to see a small frame under a body bag wearing Danny’s shoes.
That scene is as standard misery porn-y as any other Killing-style show. But then something interesting happens: Detectives Carver and Miller still have to make a visit to the Solano’s house to confirm the news. There should be no doubt in Beth’s mind that her son is dead, but she still needs that final confirmation from professionals wearing badges. Even after confirmation is received, the family doesn’t completely break down into hysterics because as long as you haven’t seen a body, there’s still hope. It’s not until Mark Solano is finally allowed to see his son’s body that he breaks down.
That intersection of small town optimistic disbelief in the face of something truly terrible is the one time Gracepoint comes closest in its first episode to achieving the difficult tone its striving for.
But even then, there’s a mystery at hand and who knows what the subtext is. Maybe Beth killed her son; maybe Mark did, or Ellie, or Emmet, or Miss Scarlet did in the ballroom with a dagger. Traditionally in the battle for intrigue and substance, intrigue wins. And the affecting scene from the premiere could feel downright silly nine weeks from now. Exhibit A is Ellie’s son mysteriously deleting all his texts from Danny. Though even I must admit that was…um, intriguing.
Episode one proves that Gracepoint knows the story it wants to tell, it just doesn’t have the vision to tell it in a new or interesting way yet.