‘Gracepoint’ brings the classic ‘whodunnit’ mystery genre back to television

By Eli Fine

(Courtesy of Fox)
(Courtesy of Fox)

Fox’s “Gracepoint” is an American remake of the critically acclaimed British television series “Broadchurch.” Together, they explore the reaction of a small, tightknit community to the murder of one of its youngest residents. Chris Chibnall created “Broadchurch,” and he returns to run this new show. “Broadchurch” starred David Tennant and Olivia Colman as two detectives with very different approaches to their job. Although his character name has been changed, Tennant reprises his role from “Broadchurch.” Anna Gunn (Breaking Bad), however, replaces Colman.

Gunn plays Ellie Miller, a detective and long-time resident of Gracepoint, a small beach town. Miller anticipates a promotion to lead detective, but learns that the job was given to an outside hire instead. The new lead detective, Emmett Carver (played by Tennant), is a rude, somewhat misanthropic man who immediately clashes with the less-hardened Miller. When Danny Solano, a 12-year-old boy, is found dead on the beach, the two detectives have to find a way to work together to solve the murder.

Gunn is really terrific here, taking the character originally portrayed by Colman and making it her own. Whereas Colman played Miller sour-faced and guarded, Gunn allows herself freedom to be looser in the role, making Miller seem happier and slightly more naïve without diminishing the character’s intelligence. Tennant’s performance here is odd.

While inarguably a great actor, he is Scottish and has difficulty with the American accent that this role calls for. The accent throws the whole performance off, and Carver comes off strangely stilted in a way that the creative team probably didn’t intend. Once you get past his off-kilter accent, Tennant gives a decent performance, although one that couldn’t possibly be compared to his brilliant work on “Broadchurch.”

Early episodes of “Gracepoint” rely heavily on heart-wrenching moments involving Danny’s family. When Carver and Miller tell the Solano family that the boy found dead was Danny, their emotional, visceral reactions are presumably meant to be painful to watch. Unfortunately, this effect is stymied by a bad performance.

Virginia Kull, who plays Beth, Danny’s mother, overacts hysterically in almost every one of her scenes. This might not be entirely her fault, as she’s being asked to sob wildly for the majority of her time on screen, but a better actress could surely do more with the material.

The vastly superior Michael Peña plays Danny’s father, Mark. Peña plays Mark subtly, expressing his anguish in smaller, more meaningful ways. In an early episode, the show misdirects us to think that Mark killed his son, because he doesn’t have a solid alibi for the night Danny died.

At this point in the original series, I guessed that Mark was innocent and that he didn’t want to give his real alibi to the cops because he was cheating on his wife that night. It was obviously too early in the season to expose the murderer. Here though, Pena plays the misdirection so well that I was fooled into thinking he might actually be the killer.

One of the key elements of the original series’ critical success was its beautiful cinematography. Every shot of every episode was calculated to mine as much beauty from the scenic British town as possible. “Gracepoint” mimics the original and is not entirely unsuccessful. Many of its scenes play like shot-for-shot remakes of scenes from the original, but if you haven’t seen the British series that won’t bother you. You’ll be able to appreciate the visuals for what they are, as opposed to being bothered by how closely they align with those of “Broadchurch.”

The show’s impressive supporting cast, which includes Nick Nolte, Jacki Weaver and Kevin Rankin, fill out the rest of Gracepoint’s residents. Everyone in this town has a secret, and anyone could have killed Danny. We spend each episode exploring the history of individual townspeople and crossing them off the suspect list. As the season draws nearer to a close, we have fewer and fewer eligible suspects and we’ll ultimately learn which of these suspicious characters committed the murder.

Although “Gracepoint” doesn’t achieve the greatness of the show it’s based on, it is successful in setting up a mystery that will intrigue audiences. The show’s producers have stated that the killer is not the same person here as it was in the original, and I, for one, am curious enough about who killed Danny Solano to happily watch the remaining episodes of “Gracepoint.”

Eli Fine can be reached at [email protected]