One of the pleasures of my research topic is that I get to watch Crime Dramas. A lot. While many of them can be quite predictable and poorly written, some shows have the capacity to stun you in their brilliance. Though I am a big fan, I would be the first to agree that even the best among American Crime dramas prioritize the crime factor more than the drama. Some of the more deliberate narratives like the first season of True Detective and the brilliant TV adaptation of Fargo (both are season-long anthologies), tend to linger on the characters rather than focus on the action. And yet, they too look at the stories for the length of the crime and the aftermath has little bearing on the viewers’ perception of the characters’ lives. It is as if the challenges faced by the characters simply cease to exist at the end of the season. This is one of the places where European shows fare better, with their intricate plotting never over-taking the depth of characterization. I would like to discuss this ability to build on past events and crimes in two recent shows from the UK, Broadchurch and River.
While I usually avoid spoilers, the following post may give away some broad strokes outline of the character arc – but you may read ahead without being robbed of the meaning and actions of the plot as I try to only reference to its method.
Broadchurch balances between the two genre modifiers of crime and drama the best among contemporary television shows. Set in a fictional coastal town in England, the first series features David Tennant and Olivia Coleman in leading roles as they try to solve the mysterious death of a ten-year old boy. This is the perfect setup for a whodunit with its finite set of characters each with their own dark secret that they want to hide. It is not to say that the show avoids that aspect, but it also transcends the simplicity of crime as a puzzle-solving that dominates many TV shows. Instead we are allowed to take a harrowing peek into the complex entanglements between the characters who are involved in the aftermath of the tragedy. It looks at the devastation of a single death and the implication of a killer to its ultimate conclusion. By resisting the tropes of inventive criminality and mind-numbingly escalating body-count other shows seem so easily susceptible to, Broadchurch seeks a crushing humanity as the basis of the viewers’ relationship with the characters. The solving of the crime is as devastating as the crime itself, as the consequences change the world of the characters permanently. In eight short episodes, Broadchurch showed how unique crime drama on TV could be.
And then the second series happened. It abandoned the format of the first series that most TV shows try and repeat. Instead, it examined a trial and its crucial elements by extending the case from the first series. This led to mixed results because the sense of closure provided in the first series seemed to be completely undone by the second. It felt like a cheap trick from a 90s Hollywood movie where an unplanned sequel forces the producers to remove the happy conclusion they had achieved. Although the second series was inarguably a natural extension of the first, it was undeniably inconsistent in quality. Like many other fans, I was not very impressed with the outcomes of the court proceedings. In my opinion, the near-perfect first series was ruined by an attempt to extend a show that should have been a limited series. Even at that stage, I would have been happy for the show to end on that note – with one remarkable series followed by a slightly underwhelming series, which was still better than many shows on air. And then the third series came, changing the way I think of a crime drama. I was never more delighted to be shown wrong when it rescued the flailing second series retroactively by presenting the greatest bit of character development between the second and third series. The characters who had suffered twice – first with the death of a child and second the failure of a justice-system – are used to make a more important point about trauma – recovery. Instead of using their tragedy as a plot point that leads them to irredeemable suffering, the show allows its characters to cope with the loss over time and return to their lives. Not only did Broadchurch provide one of the most satisfying conclusions in crime drama TV history, but it legitimized the need for the suffering inflicted by the second series. It explained why the events in the second series were important for the characters to explore their experiences.
Another show that blends a bleak aesthetic with a soul-searching character centrality is BBC’s 2015 crime drama River. Featuring Stellan Skarsgård and Nicola Walker, critics often acknowledge the faux-Scandinavian look and feel of the show with its grey London-scapes and lingering sense of narrative development. I believe that beyond the appearance, the show borrows something far deeper from its Scandinavian counterpart – it values the feelings and thoughts of its characters and reflects the significance on the plot.
River begins with almost an eye-rolling conceit typical of any of the leading crime-solvers on mainstream TV— a special ability that allows the protagonist to see the case in a way that others simply cannot. Skarsgård’s titular hero can literally see the ghosts of his cases, allowing him to externalize his thoughts and grasp at the heart of the case, eventually solving it. This feels giddily like an overused generic trope at the beginning of the show, but within the first episode it goes off on a course that is surprising and refreshing. The important distinction between this show and others like it is in its treatment of this special ability. The protagonist is slowly revealed to be less gifted, and more burdened with persistently painful and difficult life. While it has its episodic procedural moments (especially in the first three episodes), the overarching plot takes over in the latter part of the series as the inspector is trying to solve the mystery of his partner’s death – leading to a whirlwind finish where there are real emotional and personal stakes for the protagonist in solving the case.
Unlike other crime shows, River earns its twists painstakingly and makes the characters pay dearly for each truth they wrestle out of the narrative. The audience are compelled to weigh the importance of those twists – each one with its palpable and lasting consequence make us ache for the characters who live with the outcomes they choose. The show’s protagonist is deeply involved in the thick of the plot in the most organic way – as the characters’ entanglements are used to examine the dangerous profession that they are in. Usually crime shows offer a degree of invulnerability to their protagonists, especially if they are cops – some of the most famous cop-shows have insular protagonists who are never under mortal threat simply because they must exist and be in an active relationship with the plot. This is where River reaches for a level above its contemporaries. The six episodes are concluded with a finality that scoffs at the idea of returning for a second series that would cash in on a well-built world of characters and relationships. Although the production details are ominously left dangling for a possible return, actors Stellan Skarsgård considers the show “a one-off piece” and hopefully that resolve remains.
To conclude, I find this impulse that desires for River’s finality a bit conflicting, because a show like Broadchurch proves that a one-off concept could be masterfully extended and redeemed even if it is botched in the process. We may never know if a second series of a show could exceed expectations if it is never made. And yet, the fans of a show are pulled in two opposing directions, hoping for an untouched legacy and a perfect memory as well as a hope to return to characters we have become acquainted with and deeply care for. TV history is full of shows that got better in a returning season, and there are just as many examples of near-perfect mini-series events. These two traditions bear their own modes of reception in the way they prepare the audience and the buzz they generate about their content. Ultimately, long-term seriality remains one of the most intriguing points of engagements with TV shows. The tension between our desire for more episodes and the dread for them being bad is the site where TV shows- both great and terrible- are made, remembered and forgotten.
SARAVANAN MANI is editor and contributing writer here at ScreenEthics.com. He is a graduate student at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, pursuing a PhD in English focusing on American Crime Television.