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?

On the future of television

Last summer, I caught the trailer for a show that was coming that fall on NBC.  It was a show called “Awake,” about a man whose reality fragments into two after a car accident that kills his wife and son (depending on which reality you believe; one dies in each).  It looked interesting.  I never watched it that fall.  I waited until I saw it come available to stream online on Netflix this spring, something which happened after the show was cancelled.  I can see why it wasn’t ultimately successful, although the premise is very interesting; however, that’s not what this post is about.  This is about how television is changing before our eyes.

Less than five years ago, we watched shows on a weekly basis.  We circled dates on our calendars, made sure dinner was consumed by a certain time, and organized our social activities in such a way that we could be home for that specific hour or two on that specific night for the television season to see our favorite shows or those newcomers we got interested in.  That’s no longer the case.  With the rise of accessibility of DVR technology, anyone can record a show and watch it later, as my wife and I do with Game of Thrones and Doctor Who.  Alternatively, you can wait for a show to become streaming on your online service of choice – be it the subscription service of Netflix or the pay-per-show model of Amazon.  For me and my wife – casual viewers – there’s simply no reason to make an effort to stay home and watch a show anymore.  We know it’ll be there later.

This changes not just how often we watch television, but more importantly how we consume it; instead of watching one episode per week, viewers who are more likely to stream also seem to be more likely to watch lump sums of episodes at once.  I would argue that this is a result of how television has changed over the last decade; if you read Alan Sepinwall’s book “The Revolution was Televised,” he details how we moved from the join-in-at-any-episode sitcom of the ’90s to the serialized plot arcs of the ’00s.  A show like Lost is the perfect example of a trend-setter in that regard; Lost was, and still is, one of the most ambitiously continuous narratives network TV has seen, regardless of what a person thinks of how said narrative closed out.  Lost also was a show that happened at the right time; fan interaction online became a large part of the Lost experience if you watched it at the time.  Over time, now, though, Lost has also become a show tailor-made to stream, due to the fluidity of the episodes into each other.  I should note that I was a Lost streamer, and not someone who watched it weekly as it happened (to be fair, it would have driven me nuts).  24 was another key show to push this idea, but 24 made no illusions of being a friendly show to pick up at any time.

We now have shows being developed especially for streaming – Netflix, most notably, has opened its own development studio, first debuting the cynical political drama House of Cards and then the supernatural thriller Hemlock Grove before throwing the icing on the cake with the fourth season of Arrested Development (I have not started watching it yet, but I have watched the other two).  Both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove and adequate shows; they certainly push the envelope more than something on network TV, but as far as the basic idea goes, neither show is particularly unlike things you can find elsewhere.  What makes them different is that they were made specifically to be streamed, to be devoured rapidly, and it shows in how they were written.  Minutes spent on reminding you what happened months ago in Episode 2 while you’re on Episode 14 are gone; you watched Episode 2 yesterday, probably.  The other notable thing I read after House of Cards came out was that a show like that is very friendly to a production crew and actors – because everything is released at once, filming is done rapidly.  I read – and I lack the source on this, but the article I saw about it was on Grantland – that a regular 1-hour network show can have a production cycle of 6-8 months; House Cards’ was 2 months.  That’s a big deal.

Arrested Development might prove the great litmus test for the early era of streaming content; Arrested Development was, after all, something of a failure on network television almost a decade ago.  But in the time since then, the DVD/streaming era rediscovered the show (much as the DVD generation discovered Office Space about ten years ago), and Arrested Development has more or less become regarded as one of the best sitcoms of recent history (which it is).  Arrested Development straddled the line between mass consumption and weekly episodes; the show is full of requisite flashbacks, often done with a strongly humorous flair, while maintaining a certain continuity of episodes that made it, oh, a little difficult (but not impossible) to jump right in.  I’ll be interested to see how the writing of the 4th season may or may not be different from the first three.

Amazon, likewise, is starting their own streaming content, although they’re taking a different approach – they’re launching pilot episodes to view online through their Amazon Prime program, and they will produce full series of the pilots that are best received.  Let’s break that down quick – that means that viewer response will dictate which pilots are produced.  Let that soak in and realize that there’s never been that kind of viewer-production relationship before; the closest we’ve come in the past has been fan momentum to get another season of a show (a la La Femme Nikita).  In this case, Amazon is embracing that concept and encouraging a social networking movement – they’ve said they won’t just go off of views, but also off of likes and how much an episode is shared.  Power to the people!

But as we come into this, I have to wonder with a little trepidation whether or not it’s for the best; while I enjoy the higher production values of television and the move towards streaming content a la Netflix, is this really that different from the way the BBC has produced shows over the past decade?  Calling 13 1-hour episodes all released at once a “season” isn’t that far off from the BBC producing a 6 or 8-hour miniseries that runs over 2-4 weeks, and then doing it again a year later (something they do to great effect; see Luther or Sherlock).  The big kudos I give to the BBC is knowing when to call it quits and let a show be what it is.  Arrested Development is endeared to its audience precisely because there’s not enough of it; on the other hand, the legacy of the American version of the Office is dinged because it limped off into the sunset long after most fans got tired of it.  Likewise, BBC miniseries like Sherlock are treasured because they don’t go on long enough to wear out their brilliance.  I’ll be interested to see if Netflix takes note; both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove are set to continue into additional seasons, although either show could end where it is and be fine.  If the streaming era leads to a higher quality product, great.  But as with any sort of easily accessible media, the temptation to unleash a deluge of programming will be there to tempt us.  We already get season upon season of weekly shows after the candle has burned brightest (see the Office); it’ll be interesting to see how that is treated on the streaming front.

And as far as Amazon goes, I simply have to ask – do we really want the unwashed masses of social media deciding which shows to produce and which to not?  I don’t know…