Behind The Screen: Broadchurch, Serial, and the State of the Mystery

I came into some free time lately, and finally got around to a show I’ve been itching to watch for almost a year – Broadchurch.  As a Doctor Who fan, I absolutely adore David Tennant; he’s “my” Doctor, and always will be.  I enjoy seeing him in other things, such as the Hamlet he did with Patrick Stewart.  I was very curious to see this Broadchurch show, then, not only because of Tennant’s lead, but because of what I’d heard from it – about a year ago, when I heard of Broadchurch, I’d finished the first two seasons of the Killing and read the Dragon Tattoo trilogy, so I was pretty much full-on into the foreign mystery/crime formula.

I should preface by saying that I detest the way the American television/movie media sells crime and mystery right now.  The Law & Order model, popularized and disseminated across television over years has absolutely wrecked the format, focusing on the episodic crime and following the case over all else.  This is nothing new; it was done this way as long as I can remember, looking back further to more tame shows like Matlock or Murder, She Wrote (thanks Grandma!).  But Law & Order, and the subsequent brand off-shoots (SVU, etc), and the subsequent formula off-shoots (NCIS, etc) ended up dominating TV in an entirely different way, and let’s face it – it’s gotten tired.

The Europeans have a different model in play, one that David Fincher aimed at with his legendary cult classic Twin Peaks, which I’ll admit I haven’t watched (it’s… aged).  That said, I know the general outline of it, how it moves, because I know that the Killing basically co-opted the formula.  In Twin Peaks, they asked who killed Laura Palmer; in the Killing, it was Rosie Larsen.  In either case, the show wasn’t really a crime show.  Yes, a crime occurred, and was the central narrative focus, but the show itself was… a dramatic mystery?  A drama primarily, because the point of the shows was to explore how the crime affected the living; a mystery still because the whodunnit aspect played large.  That’s my fascination, something that European crime dramas do incredibly – how the crime, how the event, affects the living.

Broadchurch might be the pinnacle of this.  I still find the first two seasons of the Killing to be absolutely incredible, but even the Killing saved a major reveal for the end, even if it was incredibly, admirably, and just… ah, so heartbreaking.  So terrible.  We’re big on that; the reveal.  We feel it coming sometimes, brace for it, bask in it.  Broadchurch took a different road altogether; while the season explores the murder of a boy in a small coastal town and ravages the lives of everyone to do so, the reveal of who did it is done by the end of the seventh episode.  I had figured it out by then, personally (I won’t get into how, as it might be spoiler-y), so I was left wondering – what’s going to be the final episode’s payoff?  I came into the final episode completely open, not sure what to expect.

I was blown away.  The final episode of Broadchurch is one of the most powerful single episodes of television I’ve ever watched.  Going in knowing, the writers are masterful in letting the knowledge ripple through town – the agony of the answer worse than the horrible question.  The murder itself was devastating; the reveal of the murderer shattering.  You almost wish it went unsolved instead, that this community be spared tragedy upon tragedy.  I’ll admit; I’m a creative person, a sentimentalist, and I try to let myself feel what the writers intend.  I will weep if something moves me so strongly.  Broadchurch’s final episode did something nothing else ever has – it held me on edge all episode long, choked up and teetering between a gasping sob or the ability to lean back and swallow it.  Incredible.

This model, how a crime ripples through a society being the primary focus of a mystery, is nothing new, and it’s being well mapped out now.  Other British shows that are available via Netflix – Luther, The Fall, Happy Valley, etc – use that formula.  And while I find it more entertaining and more realistic than the Law & Order vehicle, it’s still a formula, and it’s still going to end up tired eventually.  And that said, it’s a far more exhausting formula.  I was listening to a podcast this past week, I think it was one of the Grantland Pop Culture podcasts with Andy Greenwald, and Greenwald basically asked the obvious question – how long can audiences endure watching people suffer such intense misery?  It’s a question worth asking, and it’s something to consider as some of these recent landmark mysteries move into second seasons soon – both Broadchurch and True Detective have second seasons on the way this coming year.  How will they fare?

Following that theme, NPR and This American Life have brought us Serial, which I should say is quite amazing.  It’s not really a mystery per se; it’s investigative reporting on a case from 1999, told in roughly 45-minute long weekly episodes.  Sarah Koenig, the journalist helming this, delves deep into the case, exploring it and talking to everyone involved, recording the conversations and sharing them along with her observations.  It’s hard to tell where Serial will go; it’s true-crime – as Mike Pesca at Slate pointed out in his podcast, it may not have the resolution the audience seeks, or a resolution at all.

But I don’t think that’s the point of Serial.  As good as it is, I think Serial is better an exploration of the American justice system, how it works in a real-world way, stripped away from the Law & Order formula above.  There’s no glorification of any aspect of Serial; it’s a questionable story coated with grime from the start, and Koenig is eager to get her hands dirty with it, to her credit.  She dives in and begins going through the facts, pointing out sharply when things don’t match up well, and questioning obvious things like why the cops accepted this shaky story over that one, or why Adnan’s (the prosecuted fellow) defense attorney decided not to pursue certain avenues of evidence or circumstance.  It’s sort of sobering, after growing up on the fantastic police procedural shows, really.  I think it’s a very healthy dose of reality.

That said, Serial still exploits the formula above – the episodes are somewhat topical, following this path or that, as they lead to whatever finale Koenig has planned, if it’s planned at all yet.  She admitted on Pesca’s podcast herself that she wasn’t sure how it would end yet, and they were still putting episodes together, so she wasn’t even sure how many episodes it would end up being.  This is cool by me; I hope for many, because it’s a very engaging story and well-told by Koenig.  But that sort of fluidity is somewhat startling, too, and leans to Pesca’s concerns that the resolution may not be satisfying.

After all, from what I can tell from Serial so far, the idea of proving Adnan’s innocence seems far-fetched – he’s been in prison for 15 years now and has been denied appeals.  Any evidence Koenig may turn up may not be reliable or even exist anymore.  But this just leans to my assertion above – that Serial is largely just an exploration, both of the justice system and of crime in general; what motivates people to do what they do, not just the major players, but the minor players, too.  And she does make the point early on – if you’re called to questioning about something ancillary to your life, how well will you remember the specific events of a specific day from two or three weeks ago?  She teases it in the first episode – do you remember what you ate, when you got wherever you went, if you did anything out-of-the-ordinary, if so when and for how long, etc.  We focus on routine and can say, “yeah, I probably grocery shopped on Friday” – but you may not remember for sure, let alone for how long, or when, or what you bought.  But those kinds of details are what a case can hinge on, as Serial demonstrates.

In a way, I think these recent developments have made the potential of the mystery darker and more ominous – Matlock’s gray suits and Jessica’s flower garden are no more, replaced now with explorations of open emotional wounds as we see communities deal with the ramifications of a crime.  I like it; I don’t think mysteries should be about the dead, but about the living, after all.  What it really is isn’t an exploration of death, then, but of grief – and grief is something we tend to eschew.  Look at Broadchurch again; the entire show is about grief, and how people deal with grief.  Some people close up; some people act out; almost nobody acts normal.  It’s a raw, frightening thing to watch, touching on a sort of fear and emotion that a knife-wielding maniac can’t come close to.  But Greenwald’s point remains – as good as these shows are, how much misery, how much grief, can we stand to watch before we tire of it?