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The “whodunnit” is a tried and true branch on the fictional family tree, and it takes an extremely good mystery to stand out on television these days. It seems impossible to imagine a kind of murder that hasn’t been tackled by a CSI or Law & Order episode, and so the murder itself must be surrounded by equally important and engaging characters and settings. And while I wasn’t ready to allow myself to admit it at first, Fox is home to a potential masterpiece in the startlingly realized Gracepoint, Chris Chibnall’s Americanized adaptation of his own highly acclaimed British drama Broadchurch. I want to start talking to everyone I know about this show immediately.
To be clear, I’ve yet to see Broadchurch, which is a blight that will soon find its cure. The two series are mirror images of each other for a spell, both hinging on the murder of a young boy, though the stories will diverge and eventually end up in very different places. It’s important to mention this immediately, as I am inherently bound by self-assumption that a Fox version of a BBC series could never eclipse its original form. Yet, I was stunned by how confident this show was from the very beginning, and how little like a Fox series it felt. Sure, the characters aren’t dropping clothes like rain or spewing obscenities, but it was only on the rarest occasion that I felt like Gracepoint was speaking down to me. It’s an incredibly grown-up show for a network that has Peter Griffin as an icon.
Emmy Award-winner Anna Gunn stars as Detective Ellie Miller, a cop whose assumed promotion instead went to transplant Detective Emmett Carver, played by David Tennant in virtually the same role he plays in Broadchurch. Carver is as brusque as Ellie is nurturing, and their partnership has its insular problems. Ellie is a Gracepoint native and knows all of the locals, especially the Solanos, the family whose youngest, Danny (Nikolas Filipovic), is found dead on the beach without many clues to explain his last hours. Ellie is immediately sympathetic for father Mark (Michael Peña), mother Beth (Virginia Kull) and sister Chloe (Madalyn Horcher), but Carver is more interested in following evidence than personal connections. After all, everyone is capable of lying, and everyone is capable of murder.
Because Gracepoint is a small coastal tourist town (that looks better than almost anything on Fox before it), everyone knows each other. This is explained in full by a long take in the beginning of the pilot, during which Mark walks from one end of the main drag to the other, politely interacting with a multitude of citizens around him. Mark is such a nice guy, until Gracepoint wants to make us think that Mark is not a nice guy, at all. This is largely how this story will play out, with the entire community serving as a large pool of suspects, everyone feasibly serving as a possible instrument of murder at one point or another. Sometime we become suspicious due to a comment, and sometimes merely because the camera lingers on a face for two milliseconds too long. Even Carver has secrets that make his point-of-view seem untrustworthy.
The townsfolk include Ellie’s husband Joe (Josh Hamilton) and their son Tom (Jack Irvine), who was Danny’s best friend. (Pulls at collar.) There’s a gravel-throated Nick Nolte as Jack Reinhold, the wildlife-loving guy who runs the boat rental that kids use to go off documenting nature. There’s Reverend Paul Coates (Kevin Rankin), a close friend of Beth’s whom Mark isn’t fond of. Jacki Weaver plays a woman who sits around smoking and peering through window blinds. And then on the newsy side of things, Ellie’s nephew Owen (Keven Segers) works for the local paper, and he plays liaison for city reporter Renee (Jessica Lucas), who wants to get into everyone’s business in the nicest way possible. To top it all off, there’s a guy who hears voices.
If Gracepoint has a glaring fault, it’s that it has the bad luck of coming after years of murder mysteries that got bogged down in ineptitude, as well as a select few that will forever remain memorable. So this brooding, downtrodden and spectacularly photographed investigation isn’t exactly the freshest thing to hit TV. Especially since it’s a remix of its overseas original. If it has a less glaring fault, it’s that Gracepoint proper doesn’t become a memorable TV location in its own right, perhaps because every location we’re shown is a potential crime scene and no one ever has any fun. I mean, Twin Peaks gave us one of the most twisted murders in fiction and still managed to make the location an inviting enough place to go drink a cup of coffee in the middle of the night. We don’t get that here.
But Gunn and Tennant are addictive to watch, and if I have to deal with suspect fakeouts and red herrings and character twists in order to see them together, it’s my duty as a citizen. Gracepoint is at times gripping and unrelenting television, and at least in the episodes that I watched, stands high on the cliffs above everything else on basic cable. Now find me again in a week after I’ve watched Broadchurch and ask me what I’m thinking then. Or wait, don’t.
Gracepoint premieres on Fox on Thursday, October 2, at 9 p.m. ET.