Ex-‘Doctor Who,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ stars tackle ‘Gracepoint’

Hank Stuever (c) 2014, The Washington Post. Is “Gracepoint” necessary?

Not if you watched the original (and mostly excellent), eight-part British miniseries “Broadchurch” last year, which aired on BBC America and was also devoured by video-on-demand customers who are always hunting for a worthwhile binge.

It’s almost impossible to watch “Gracepoint” (the first of 10 episodes premieres Thursday night on Fox) from a purely objective place and set aside the temptation to compare the two. In its first three episodes, “Gracepoint” mirrors “Broadchurch” practically shot-for-shot and scene-for-scene, even down to the dramatic pauses and the grief-stricken wails of the parents of a young boy who is found murdered on the beach of a small town near the California-Oregon state line.

Compounding the deja vu is the fact that “Broadchurch” star David Tennant reprises his role in this remake, pawing around for an American accent that only occasionally passes the test.

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The good news is, for those many millions of broadcast TV watchers who never saw “Broadchurch” (and frankly never heard of it, despite the good reviews heaped upon it), “Gracepoint” still has plenty of potential to be a real treat; it’s clearly something different from the maxed-capacity morgues of prime time’s many procedural crime dramas. It’s a better quality of murder mystery all around.

Even though it’s a facsimile, “Gracepoint” still has most of the original’s eerie and deliberately forlorn pace, as two detectives (Tennant as Emmett Carver and “Breaking Bad’s” Anna Gunn as Ellie Miller) try to find out who killed Danny Solano, a Gracepoint boy who sneaked out of his bed in the middle of the night and, at dawn, was discovered dead at the foot of the magnificent seaside cliffs that draw the tourism that supports the local economy.

The story’s essential dynamics are the same: Detective Miller is quietly seething that she was passed over for a promotion when Detective Carver arrived to fill the supervisory job she hoped to get. Complicating matters is that everyone in Gracepoint is related to — or at least knows — everyone else. Miller and her husband, Joe (Josh Hamilton), are close to Danny’s parents, Beth and Mark Solano (Virginia Kull and Michael Peña); their sons were best friends. Miller’s nephew, Owen (Kevin Zegers), is a cub reporter at the local newspaper with an itchy Twitter finger when he discovers details about the case the police aren’t ready to share.

And so on and so forth — honestly, as frustrating as it might be to write a review of a sub-par remake of “Broadchurch,” it’s doubly frustrating to come up with a concise summary again.

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That sort of bafflement and perhaps even resentment colored a fair portion of a news conference during the summer between TV critics and “Gracepoint’s” executive producers and writers.

Ever since Fox announced that it would remake “Broadchurch” for an American audience, both reporters and fans have only asked why? Why do it all over the same way or even close to the same way? How different will the show be? Will it end with the revelation of a different killer than the original? Will the suspects be the same?

“The first order of business was don’t [mess] up what works [about “Broadchurch”], because it was fantastic,” said Dan Futterman, who, with his wife, Anya Epstein, is “Gracepoint’s” co-showrunner and writer.

“All of you probably saw ‘Broadchurch,'” Futterman said. “You are connoisseurs of good TV, and it was great TV. So we didn’t want to break what was working. But we also wanted to raise this show in a different country. We have 10 episodes as opposed to eight, and so we start to veer from the storyline. . . . [W]e introduced new characters, new potential suspects.”

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Having watched seven episodes now of “Gracepoint,” I can attest that by episode four or so, things do begin to veer, though perhaps not enough to reignite a “Broadchurch” fan’s desperation to know whodunit. And because “Gracepoint” is lacking an ineffable something that “Broadchurch” definitely had (“Gracepoint’s” grief is not as profound; its emotions don’t click with the same resonance), the addition of more suspects only reminds a viewer of both versions that “Broadchurch’s” red herrings also came on a bit too strong and too prolifically. In fact, “Gracepoint” has a way of bringing out all of “Broadchurch’s” shortcomings — and “Broadchurch” did have them, including a rather implausible solution to its killer’s motives.

The bigger problem here is that the pond is not nearly as wide as it used to be. Just ask anyone in the United States who is surreptitiously watching “Downton Abbey” episodes that are airing in Britain but won’t air here until January.

Not long ago, you could rejigger and Americanize a British or European hit television series with little fuss from critics or viewers on either side of the Atlantic. In fact, as a practice, it’s still often worth encouraging; just look at what FX has accomplished with “Broen/Bron,” the Danish/Swedish cop thriller that was rechristened “The Bridge” and entirely reimagined as a saga set against the U.S.-Mexico border crossing at El Paso.

In the past, remaking a show was no big deal. At best, it was considered a compliment to the original show’s success, and, in rare cases (“The Office,” for example) became something altogether more special. Now, because of our broadband appetites and the global availability of premium TV from other lands (legally viewed or not), we tend to get more huffy about remakes. Surely many of us have had the experience of discussing Netflix’s “House of Cards” when someone in the group haughtily declares the original 1990 British miniseries to be so much better.

The more critics pushed Futterman and company to explain why “Gracepoint” deserves to exist without interference or retort from “Broadchurch” fans, a depressing reality presented itself: For all the great reviews, for all our urging others to watch it, BBC America’s “Broadchurch” viewing audience “represented, truly, less than 1 percent of the American television viewing population,” said Carolyn Bernstein, another of “Gracepoint’s” producers. “We’re not particularly worried about the overlap.”

“My mom,” Futterman added, “is right down the alley of the BBC America audience and she started watching [“Broadchurch”] and she’s like, ‘I can’t understand a word they’re saying.'”

“How rude!” said Tennant, who was sitting on the same panel — getting big laughs.

It might not be rude, per se, to take a beautiful series like “Broadchurch” and serve up a slightly more cardboard-tasting version of it to American audiences. But in the modern era of real-time culture swaps, it has just a little sting of bad manners.

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“Gracepoint” (one hour) premieres Thursday on Fox. Check local listings for details.