Broken Compasses

'Broadchurch' on BBC America

If W. H. Auden were alive today, he’d be setting his TiVo to catch Broadchurch, the atmospheric, artfully methodical detective drama airing on BBC America August 7 through October 2. A hit in the UK, where it was the most Tweeted-about TV program ever, this eight-episode series is not edgy, innovative or—like so many mystery hopefuls these days—Scandinavian. Instead, it is a rounded-out version of a classic British whodunit—the kind of reassuringly formulaic entertainment that Auden paid tribute to in his 1948 essay “The Guilty Vicarage.”

In that piece, Auden argued that detective stories allow readers who suffer from a keen sense of sinfulness to fantasize about “being restored to the Garden of Eden.” Auden thought the best mysteries facilitated this virtual restoration by adhering to certain conventions: their narratives unfurled within a subsection of society, for instance, and their characters included many figures who initially appeared innocent, only to reveal varieties of guilt.

These and other vintage sleuth tropes turn up in Broadchurch, which initially feels a tad boilerplate, but grows increasingly suspenseful and engrossing, thanks to canny pacing, smart plotting, and vivid performances. Auden, who preferred whodunits set in rural England, would delight in the show’s picturesque milieu: a seaside town, resplendent with quaint harbor...

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About the Author

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.