It’s tough to beat a good crime drama for many reasons, only some of which have to do with guns, car chases and wise but weary men saying things like “I’m too old for this.”
Crime punctures the delicate scrim of daily life: The perfect family, the orderly office, the quiet town. Its investigation goes even further, yanking the coverlet from the unmade bed of human nature, exposing the stains, the cigarette burns, the secrets.
That’s why murder mysteries remain the most popular stories on television — through them we can safely examine the tenuous nature of civilization. This is precisely the reason Chris Chibnall wrote “Broadchurch,” the brilliantly moody and emotionally unsettling eight-part series that sent British critics into rapture last year and debuts Wednesday night on BBC America.
It is also one of the first things Det. Inspector Alec Hardy (“Dr. Who’s” David Tennant) tries to impress upon Det. Sgt. Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman) when he arrives in the tiny, tidy Dorset town of Broadchurch just in time to investigate the death of young local boy: The town you think you live in is just a romanticized version of the place where you actually live.
Creating what may be an entirely new genre of mystery — cozy noir? — “Broadchurch” opens with the disturbing imagery of a boy standing on the edge of a nighttime cliff; blood drips from his hand. Then morning blooms, with golden light and ordinary promise, in the Latimer home where mum Beth (Jodie Whittaker), dad Mark (Andrew Buchan) and 16-year-old Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont) all assume that 11-year-old Danny (Oskar McNamara) has left the house early to tend to his paper route before going to school.
Watching as Mark, a plumber, wends his way through town, greeting the entire populace by name while Beth’s concern over her son’s absence becomes worry, then panic, then hysteria is the stuff of nightmares. Every day is just another day until it isn’t, until life gives way beneath your feet and you realize, to your horror, that the fall will not actually kill you, that you have to keep living in this new and treacherous landscape.
That is certainly Beth’s journey as she discovers that the day you see your child dead may not be the worst day of your life — what follows can be even more devastating. Like the first season of AMC’s “The Killing,” “Broadchurch” is far less interested in the mechanics of the mystery than it is in the emotional and psychological fallout of the crime.
But where “The Killing’s” Veena Sud too often lost control of her story in pursuit of mood or character, Chibnall never does. A dozen characters, played by the inevitably glorious assortment of British actors, crisscross in an astonishingly fluid game of cat’s cradle, bringing this small town miraculously to life but never straying too far, or too absurdly, from the narrative through line.
The young and uncertain vicar (Arthur Darvill, also late of “Dr. Who”), the gruff news agent (“Harry Potter’s” David Bradley), the editor of the local paper (Carolyn Pickles) and her cub reporter (Jonathan Bailey), the owner of the town’s nice hotel (Simone McAullay) and the odd angry beachcomber (Pauline Quirke) all have powerful back stories that relate, in one way or another, to Danny’s death.
It’s the tension between Hardy and Ellie (or “Miller,” as Hardy insists on calling her) that drives the story, though, even more than the investigation. Unshaven and drawn, Tennant’s Hardy is one in a long line of emotionally maimed but tenacious detectives, haunted by the past, atoning for his sins.
Joining Idris Elba’s “Luther” and Benedict Cumberbatch’s “Sherlock,” Hardy is saved from cliche by Tennant’s ability, honed during his years as a Time Lord, to seed sorrow with humor, obsession with reason, despair with mad hope.
But even those rejoicing at Tennant’s return to serialized television will have to concede that “Broadchurch” is Ellie’s story. Having just returned from maternity leave, she has barely digested the fact that Hardy has been given the job she thought she would be getting, when news comes of a body on the beach, a body she instantly recognizes as Danny, her own son’s best friend. From that anguished moment on, Colman’s friendly working mom is forced to choose between her instinct to protect the people she knows, or thinks she knows, and her equally strong desire to find the killer.
By turns exasperated and regretful, Hardy relentlessly tutors Ellie in the quicksilver duplicity of human nature. And as a woman coming to understand the cost and necessity of ruthlessness, Colman delivers a performance of such intimate resonance and understated power that you have no idea the punch has been thrown — until you find yourself bent over and breathless.
Where: BBC America
When: 7 p.m. and 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)