What is the point of Gracepoint? Does there have to be one?
After all, a U.S. network remaking a foreign TV show — as Fox has done with Gracepoint, its take on the acclaimed British drama Broadchurch — is hardly new. From All in the Family to The Office to The Bridge, Americans have for decades embraced series based on ideas imported from abroad (not to mention, as in the case of the U.S. Life on Mars, rejected them).
But Fox has undergone heavy scrutiny (and scorn) from critics as well as fans of the original, simply for having the audacity to appropriate the story. Gracepoint, which debuted last Thursday, transplants the original tale of a small-town murder investigation from the English seaside to the Northern California seaside, while keeping the same creator-writer, Chris Chibnall, and the same lead, Scottish actor David Tennant of Doctor Who fame.
Here Tennant plays Emmett Carver, the U.S. counterpart to Broadchurch’s Detective Inspector Alec Hardy. He’s newly arrived and recently hired as Gracepoint’s lead detective, much to the irritation of Detective Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn of Breaking Bad), who was expecting to get that gig. But when Ellie’s first case upon returning from vacation involves the suspicious death of twelve-year-old Danny Solano (Nikolas Filipovic), her son’s best friend, it’s probably just as well that Carver’s in charge.
Last week’s pilot was essentially a shot-for-shot retread of Broadchurch episode 1, which in a way was smart, since it would be tough to improve on the original. But it certainly left those of us who’ve seen Broadchurch with a serious case of deja vu, not to mention wondering exactly what this adaptation will be bringing to the party. It’s not like U.S. viewers haven’t had their chance to see Broadchurch, which first aired on British channel ITV and was quickly picked up here by BBC America. (Do the people at ITV find it irritating that so many Americans tag Broadchurch as a BBC production? Or do they just expect that sort of thing from us clueless Yanks?) The series is also available as a U.S. DVD set and download.
Broadchurch was among my fave British shows of last year, and not just because it starred Tennant, one of my favorite actors. Chibnall’s murder mystery kept me guessing all the way to the reveal — even though I did eventually figure out who the culprit was, I was never sure I had it right. But with its slow pace, eerie soundtrack, mounting sense of doom, and stellar performances, the original series was also an absorbing study of how tragedy hits a close-knit community, not just bringing people together in grief but also breaking them apart as the tensions and suspicions brought on by the investigation take their toll.
Gracepoint begins as Broadchurch began, with waves crashing on a beach, an empty street at night, a town asleep. Then comes our extended introduction to the setting and all the players, as Beth Solano (Virginia Kull) wakes to the usual family hubbub in the kitchen, and her husband, Mark (Michael Peña), makes his morning rounds. They don’t know it yet, but their world has already changed — and we’re along for the ride as Beth realizes that son Danny is not where he’s supposed to be, learns that a body has been found on the beach, and takes her long long long run down the coastal highway to have her worst fears confirmed.
By this point I was really wishing I had some Retcon — the memory-erasing drug so often employed on Doctor Who spinoff Torchwood — so I could forget all about Broadchurch and just take in Gracepoint on its own. Not merely parroting the dialogue and look of the original, the pilot also managed to replicate Broadchurch’s feeling of a world tilting sideways, of an entire town entering a dreamlike state — or, more accurately, a waking nightmare — as lives are turned upside-down. The emotional rawness of the family’s reaction to the official news of Danny’s death was just as ragged, their pain just as devastating, as in the original. If a story worth telling is worth re-telling, then perhaps Gracepoint isn’t wholly irrelevant.
Still, because I don’t have any Retcon, Tennant’s presence in both shows makes me wonder why the producers didn’t also bring over Olivia Colman, the original Detective Ellie Miller, whose nuanced take on a woman struggling to balance the personal and the professional was the heart of Broadchurch and garnered near universal acclaim. It may be unfair, but it’s hard not to think that Fox of course had to recast Colman, who is plain and brunette instead of statuesque and blonde like Anna Gunn. (Hey, at least they didn’t hire an ingenue; Gunn is actually older than Colman.)
But worse, worst, it pains me to admit, no amount of Retcon could erase the problem with Tennant’s American accent. His choice to make the gruff Carver so growly does not entirely disguise how much his speech slips around. I’m no dialogue expert and can’t pinpoint exactly what went wrong, but he just doesn’t sound real, and it is tragically distracting.
Gracepoint does differ from Broadchurch in a laundry list of details, including number of episodes (eight for the original, ten for the remake) as well as people’s surnames, characters’ occupations, and the like. And apparently it won’t be a carbon copy for long, at least according to interviews with various principals: A few episodes in, it is said to diverge from its parent’s storyline, and may even feature a different murderer in the end. (Maybe.) That could be where things get interesting … or where they start to fall apart. I for one am curious enough to keep tuning in, although I may be the only one when all is said and done. (I’ll be sure to turn out the lights.) Because with Gracepoint’s overnight ratings among the worst so far for a new series this season, the two shows seem destined for different fates as well: Broadchurch is set for a second season, while Gracepoint’s future is already in doubt.