GRACEPOINT Debriefing: Bringing the art of the murder mystery across the pond

Gracepoint cast

I have to state this up front: I haven’t seen Broadchurch, the British series upon which Gracepoint is based. I always meant to give it a shot, thanks to its universally glowing reviews, but never got around to it, and once they announced the American remake, I decided I’d hold off, if only to avoid “spoilers” of a sort. So I couldn’t tell you how the FOX version stacks up against the original, or how bizarre it is to see David Tennant play the same role in both series.

What I can tell you, though, is that this version is beautifully shot and showcases Victoria, B.C. (as a stand-in for a small California coastal town) in all its glory, and that it seems to be on the right track to tug at the audience’s heartstrings. And, most importantly, that Tennant plays the gruff detective with remarkable ease.

The pilot begins eerily cheerily for what we know turns into a murder mystery. A typical suburban family begins their day, preparing for school and work. Mark Solano (Michael Peña) does a man-about-town walk-and-talk through the streets of sunny Gracepoint, as though nothing can touch him. “Walking on Sunshine” may as well be playing in the background. Characters weave in and out of frame to talk to him, which almost felt like a commercial to me, and you get the sense that this is a very tight-knit community, and Mark is integral to it.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Things take a turn when his wife, Beth (Virginia Kull) shows up to their son Danny’s (Nikolas Filipovic) soccer game that afternoon, happily ready to cheer him on, when one of his teachers asks her if he’s feeling better after being out of school that day. Beth stops in her tracks, because as far as she knows her son is feeling fine, and begins to panic when it becomes clear she can’t reach him, and that nobody has seen him all day. She leaves the field to head home and wait for her son, but gridlock traffic thanks to a roadblock on the main road to town causes her to jump out and head for the source, especially after a fellow motorist tells her the road’s closed because the cops found a body on the beach. Beth’s anxiety reaches its peak, as though she instinctively knows that she is about to hear the worst news of her life. When she finally barrels through the police barricade, her fears are confirmed by Detective Ellie Miller (Anna Gunn), who also happens to be the mother of Danny’s best friend Tom (Jack Irvine).

With that sequence, the viewer gets a good picture of just how entangled the various relationships on Gracepoint will be. Beth looks like a typical young soccer mom, but lashes out at her husband for not checking in on Danny before going to bed. Mark strikes back at her, but is also shifty, because she doesn’t believe that he was out on a work call at two in the morning. The cops are supposed to remain impartial, but it’s hard to do that when they’ve hosted the murder victim at sleepovers. The local rookie reporter Owen Burke (an all-grown-up Kevin Zegers) who brazenly breaks the story on social media happens to be Ellie’s nephew. Everyone in Gracepoint is connected to each other somehow, undoubtedly turning this investigation into a circus of monumental proportions. Oh, the tangled webs we weave.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Not helping matters is the shakeup at the local police department. Much like Mark Solano, Ellie begins this fateful day convinced she’s about to receive a promotion at work, only to find out once she’s called into her boss’ office that they’re bringing in an outside cop to head her division. She’s devastated and infuriated, knowing there’s nothing she can do about it, and humiliated that they not only went over her head, but are now making her report to a stranger. Then, this new detective, Emmet Carver (Tennant) is the antithesis of her small-town cop: he’s hardened, he’s undemonstrative, he criticizes how she does her job, and has absolutely no time for the way they do things in Gracepoint. He doesn’t hold hands with victims’ families, he doesn’t mince words about what he thinks. Ellie is at her wit’s end dealing with this as it is, but add to that that she has to let this newcomer take the lead on the investigation of Danny Solano’s murder, and she reaches her breaking point.

However, as the day wears on, it’s clear that Carver is, in fact, teaching Ellie something — since murders are rare, here, and she admittedly doesn’t have a clue about how to handle it. She’s the heart of the investigation, reeling right along with the Solanos, but Carver is the one who reminds her to keep her eyes open, to notice things out of the ordinary. She’s aghast at first, but as the day unfolds, she begins to catch on, and the puzzle pieces start falling into place. They don’t know what happened to poor Danny, other than he didn’t kill himself, but they know that there’s something afoot in Gracepoint.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Then there are the rest of the characters rounding out the cast, each adding a dash of intrigue into the tragedy. The Solanos’ other child, daughter Chloe (Madalyn Horcher) is overcome with grief, but when she takes her brother’s favorite stuffed toy to beach to start a memorial, it’s her boyfriend Dean (Kendrick Sampson) who raises the viewers’ suspicions with his uncomfortable glances into the distance. (It’s also what prompts Owen to report the story online.) San Francisco Globe reporter Renee Clemons (Jessica Lucas), who catches on to Owen’s tweet, eschews her boss’ edict that the “wrong gender” murder isn’t worth covering, and races to the town to uncover her own leads on this make-or-break story. Meanwhile, Beth’s own son Tom raises a few eyebrows himself, projecting a grieving friend to his mother, but deleting Danny’s messages from his phone, and the entire hard drive on his computer, when she leaves him alone. Thanks to video surveillance, they all know Danny wasn’t in bed when his parents said he was, so what exactly happened to the twelve year old on that fateful night?

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Tennant and Gunn’s performances really do stand out. I bought Gunn as a seasoned local cop, who appears to be a pillar of her community. She struck an engaging balance between trying to maintain a professional distance from the victim to do her job, and being completely shocked at the horror that has just struck her town. She stands up for herself with her new superior, but is also obviously out of her depth given the scope of the case. On the other hand, Tennant’s Carver is distant, even cold, but it quickly becomes apparent that he’s seen his own share of terrors, and that his proficiency at this investigation has come at a great personal cost. Add to that the nugget Renee reveals about their past work together — that she’s surprised they’ve let him back onto another case after what happened last time, whatever that means — and you’ve got a good dose of intrigue to keep you wondering about the new detective in town.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Procedurals aren’t always my preferred viewing, if only because the subject matter is often too heavy for my snarky heart to bear. However, “event series” such as Gracepoint are an entirely different beast to me, because the story has the time to unfold over the course of the season, twisting and turning with more finesse than is typically allowed in crime dramas every week. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gracepoint reminded me a little of The Killing in how it tries to weave the family’s story into the murder investigation, yet I like that it seemed to focus more on the case than their despair. To be sure, there was much sobbing to be had in this episode, but I think the heaviness of Danny’s murder is quickly going to be overtaken by Carver and Ellie’s zeal to catch his killer and uncover the undoubtedly sinister underbelly hidden beneath the surface in Gracepoint.

Courtesy Fox

Courtesy Fox

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the beauty of the landscape that director James Strong effectively displayed in this first episode. It’s difficult not to be awed by Victoria’s coast, but I loved how Strong juxtaposed the sunny, serene charm of “Gracepoint” with the utter horror of what happened to Danny. The seemingly sleepy town already feels like a character unto itself to me, and I hope we get to see more of it as the season progresses. Unlike The Killing, which used Vancouver’s (as Seattle’s) natural grey tones to impose a layer of misery on top of the already gruesome plot, Gracepoint seems to be using Victoria’s temperate climate to drive home that this tragedy can strike even the safest of communities.

I’m intrigued enough by the premise to come back for more next week, and I only hope FOX lets it hang around long enough to see Danny’s murder resolved. The actors on this show are too good for it disappear without seeing what this show is made of.

What did you think of Gracepoint’s debut? Any theories about who killed Danny?

Nels
Nels knew how to operate a TV remote control before she knew how to talk. As a result, she has spent an inordinate amount of time pretending she actually lives on a soundstage. When she isn’t watching whichever show is currently capturing her heart, she is writing about how said show is currently capturing her heart. She loves pie.

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