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The Oldest Story: Broadchurch and True Detective
Image: Patrick Redmond
Arthur Darvill, David Tennant, and Olivia Colman in 'Broadchurch'

Note: No key plot spoilers! Nothing you couldn’t get from the synopsis. I promise.

Last night, I finished Broadchurch.

In preparation for the premiere of Gracepoint this fall on FOX, I’ve been watching the British show on which it’s based. Both shows are about a sleepy coastal town that gets rocked by the murder of a young boy. The resulting investigation leaves its mark.

The names give away the show’s interest in exploring, carefully and quietly, the relationship between what goes on in heaven and what happens here down on earth. It wants to know whether what we do here triggers punishments or, perhaps more importantly, whether there’s anyone up there who cares at all, or whether we’ve been abandoned.

What I was thinking about as I watched was how much it reminded me of True Detective (though, hear me on this: that show is far, far more brutal and graphic). In both, detectives sense that a sort of salvation rides on what they’re doing. Both are about investigations into unthinkable murders that wind up unearthing the darkest secrets. They’re also both beautifully shot and powerfully directed in ways we rarely see on television.

But there’s one very important thing both shows do, something that Christians, frankly, need to do better in their storytelling: they understand intuitively that sin is both a personal and a corporate matter. Sin is something in people’s hearts, and it’s also something that permeates a community. And when something goes wrong in a community, rarely is the perpetrator the only one at fault.

In True Detective, it becomes clear that the evil within the community is far more pervasive than one man. It starts high and slides all the way to the lowest, and it runs straight through the hearts of the detectives themselves. This is reminiscent of The Wire, which compellingly shows that violence and drugs and criminal activity have both a simple answer—all people are capable of evil—and a very complex one, because there is no way to simply point a finger in one direction. Once you start tugging on the loose threads, you discover that the boys selling drugs on the corner and the kingpin and the mayor, they’re all connected.

Similarly, in Broadchurch, tugging on the loose threads reveals that while everyone is under suspicion, it’s not really merely the perpetrator’s fault. In some way, one death is a failure of the whole community to live with love and integrity. And each person, even the “innocent,” has something ugly in their own hearts, something they hide from others that ultimately harms the community as a whole. They harbor anger and resentment and the line from acquaintance to enemy is quickly crossed. Grace and forgiveness are hard-won, when they’re there at all. (See Calvary for another good look at this.)

In Broadchurch, one detective says, “People are unknowable. And you can never really know what is going on inside someone else’s heart.” But the minister also tells the town, “If we are not a community of neighbors, then we are nothing.”

It strikes me that this is important now when we’re drowning in a sea of politicized rhetoric about the tragedies in Ferguson. Frankly, I’ve had trouble figuring out what to think, or whether I deserve to have an opinion (a public one, anyhow). Brokenness, yes; sadness, yes; prayers, yes. But instead of talking about what I think, I’ve been reading my friend Mike Leary, who’s lived in St. Louis and been writing. He said this:

Watch This Way
How we watch matters at least as much as what we watch. TV and movies are more than entertainment: they teach us how to live and how to love one another, for better or worse. And they both mirror and shape our culture.
Alissa Wilkinson
Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's chief film critic and assistant professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She lives in Brooklyn.
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The Oldest Story: Broadchurch and True Detective