'Gracepoint' Premiere Review: Anna Gunn And David Tennant Run The Show
Gracepoint is an American remake of BBC’s Broadchurch (Chris Chibnall helms both series) and the harshest reviews have come from fans of the original. They decry Gracepoint for being too much like the original, which is similar to disliking burgers for tasting like meat. You knew what this was going in. Those of us, like myself, who have never seen Broadchurch thoroughly enjoyed the pilot and will probably now invest in both shows.
Gracepoint is a fictional small town in the northwest. It’s pleasant, beachfront and quiet. That quiet is broken when the body of a twelve-year-old boy, Danny Solano, is found. This Smallville-esque location is the type where everybody knows each other, and knows each other’s business. Most of everyone who was born here will likely die here. It’s remote and nice, and the police force has never had to handle a murder before. The lead investigators are Emmett Carver (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn). Carver is a cop from the city escaping an unnamed malfeasance. He’s terse and loud and authoritative, and residents don’t care for him. He’s also taken the promotion that Ellie expected for herself. Here’s where things get a little wonky.
We all know Anna Gunn from Breaking Bad and her motive in taking this role was an obvious one: avoid being typecast. Miller’s great day is ruined with news of her failed promotion and we jump cut into the ladies’ room where she’s weeping into her phone and shrilly screaming at another officer who tells them they’ve found a body. At the crime scene when she realizes it’s Danny (everyone knows each other here; Danny is her son’s best friend), she freaks out in front of the CSIs and Carver. While these scenes are fine in themselves — not only do they ground Miller’s character in reality, they also establish that local law enforcement and media just aren’t equipped to deal with a murder case. Unfortunately, in casting Anna Gunn, these scenes are reminiscent to Skyler on Breaking Bad in the early seasons when she was at her most histrionic, and before we realized she was entirely right. This passes, soon enough. Miller is quickly established as being capable of drawing strength. When her reporter nephew manipulates information out of her and leaks Danny’s identity, Miller makes sure he realizes what a mistake he made. Again, this establishes the incestuous small town nature of Gracepoint, but this time also establishes Miller’s ability to adapt and harden. Gunn has a hell of a fun time with this, and my favorite part of the pilot was her terse “Speak” that made her nephew wince and sheepishly apologize to Carver.
Plot wise, genre fans will recognize the DNA of The Killing in this series. It’s the death of a child; it’s a slow burn about how loss ripples out, affecting people even tangentially related to the victims’ family. There are differences of course. The beach setting gives it a Jaws type of feel — it’s gorgeous, but there’s an underlying dread. The local economy relies on tourists and now the national media sees an opportunity to ruin more lives by sensationalizing and bringing focus to the Solano case. There’s a bit of social commentary at play. The editor of the big city paper isn’t interested in the case. “Wrong gender, wrong race, too old,” he initially says.
To those of you who noticed my mention of The Killing and started feeling lightheaded, don’t worry. While Gracepoint is slow moving, it is only a ten episode miniseries. Chibnall is guaranteed a resolution and revelation of the killer by the end of it; and for the Broadchurch fans willing to stick around, Chibnall has said that the killer and resolution are different this time around. While the series does focus on loss the way The Killing does, they don’t overplay the hand. Gracepoint isn’t a dreary slog the way The Killing was. The characters are more likable but still real, and the reactions are very much organic.
While Gunn is easily MVP of the series so far, without Tennant as her partner, the story would be incomplete. Again, there is something familiar to the genre here. Miller and Carver are mismatched partners. Miller is (by comparison) inexperienced; Carver is the stalwart noir detective — unshaved, wrinkled suit, socially inept. Their partnership is the tried and true personality mismatch clash, which can be tedious considering how often this has been done. However, there are bolts of creativity in it. Given the small town, there is an inherent sense of personal loss that everyone is feeling; it also makes everyone a suspect. There are the beginnings of nascent paranoia in this little enclave, even among the Solano family. Tennant’s Carver is the odd man out here. He’ll be the voice of reason, and unfortunately because he’s so terse it may fall on deaf eyes. Tennant plays an American, and while those familiar with his work may find it distracting, it’s not nearly as bad as Anthony Head’s American accent in Dominion. At the same time, Gracepoint and Dominion are two very different shows, both plot and quality-wise, so take that with a grain of salt.
Rounding out the cast as suspect #1 is Jack Reinhold (Nick Nolte). He’s an aging fisherman, whose fatigued rudeness and borderline drunken behavior, I’m not sure if this is actually the character or someone was just recording Nick Nolte in his natural habitat. Kidding (mostly) aside, Nolte’s Reinhold gives Gracepoint as a town a homespun reality, like he’s the spirit of everything it was before the murder. He’s a historical figure here — treated respectfully, and likely the keeper of its shady secrets. One could almost smell the sea salt through his pores and the whiskey on his breath.
The detectives on the case are only half the run time. The rest is given to the Solano family. A grandmother, some kids, and the parents Mark (Michael Peña) and Beth (Virginia Kull). Whether the series sinks or swims is all on them. Yes, while this series is different from The Killing, its memory lingers. We genre aficionados realize that focusing on the suffering of a family losing a child is a dramatic focal point, but it can easily become melodrama to the point of parody. Peña and Kull do an excellent job so far, even if the writing doesn’t quite match up — I find it strange that Beth would get out of her car during a traffic jam, walk up to another car just a few feet ahead, ask the person what the problem is, and though that person is just a few feet ahead, knows that the police have cordoned the area because of a dead body. Of course, Beth manages to simply walk past the cordon and the cops to just a few steps removed from the corpse, which she somehow knew was her kid. We’ve seen this scene a hundred thousand times in crime drama. It never changes no matter how hacky and thoughtless it is.
Thankfully, when the plot shifts back to the Solanos, the writing improves markedly. The dialogue and the performances improve, even with little things like Mark immediately wanted to see the body to make sure there hasn’t been a mistake, clinging to the idea that there might still be a chance Danny’s still alive. The Solanos soon make the quiet move from comforting each other to subtly blaming each other. Given that this is a ten-episode series, the stages of grief will likely be accelerated, and we’re better off for that.
If you miss having a smart cop show in the wake of The Shield ending, Hannibal, Fargo and The Fall being on hiatus, then Gracepoint is worth the obsession.