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A Mystery That's About More Than Just Murder

When was the last time you actually were moved by a TV-show murder? Not just shocked or grossed out.

Police procedurals have so inured us to the taking of life -- by fist, gun, knife, ax, poison -- it's become nearly impossible to appreciate or feel the cataclysmic nature of murder and its effect on those it touches.

So, our thanks go to writer Chris Chibnall for creating Broadchurch, a complex eight-part murder mystery that elicits the gut-wrenching outrage and anguish that murder should incite.

The drama, which stars David Tennant, Olivia Colman, and Jodie Whittaker, premieres Wednesday at 10 p.m. on BBC America.

Masterfully written by Chibnall (Torchwood, Law & Order: UK, Camelot) and brilliantly executed by a superb ensemble cast, Broadchurch is set in the fictional coastal town of Broadchurch in Wessex in southeastern England. It puts under the microscope the effects -- sometimes profound, sometimes subtle -- of a child's murder on a small community.

It aired this spring on Britain's ITV network to critical acclaim and already has been renewed for a second season. Last week, Fox announced it is producing an American version next season.

The first episode opens with a brief shot of a child standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a beach on the English Channel. It's pitch black. A blood drop falls from his finger.

The story proper gets going the following morning when the child, 11-year-old Danny Latimer, is found dead on the beach.

He was manually strangled, probably by a man. The killer was facing the boy while squeezing his throat, says the medical examiner. "We don't have these here," he adds. A small town of 15,000, Broadchurch has never had a murder. At least not in recent history.

Broadchurch avoids the usual trappings of the procedural. It's not so much a murder mystery as a gripping epic about an entire community -- a living organism made up of countless people whose relationships with each other are constantly changing.

At the same time, the drama, which focuses on more than a dozen central characters, also provides rich, detailed portraits of each of its principals.

Tennant (Doctor Who, Spies of Warsaw) is riveting as Detective Inspector Alec Hardy, a dour, bleak Scotsman. Hardy has recently arrived in town, displacing the homegrown Detective Sergeant Ellie Miller (Coleman), who expected she'd be put in charge of the investigation.

Coleman and Tennant have crackling chemistry as they clash, butt heads, and awkwardly dance around each other. She's too naive, he thinks, looking for the good in everyone. Hardy is a big-city cop: As far as he's concerned, everyone's a liar, a cheat, and a potential killer.

Hardy has been living under a dark cloud: He came to Broadchurch after botching a major investigation into another child killing. While he was cleared of actual wrongdoing, he was vilified in the national press. He was transferred down to the coast to finish out his career in a quiet, low-profile post.

That evaporates when the press descends on Danny Latimer's family. Reporter Karen White (Vicky McClure), the London high-flyer who had previously exposed Hardy as an incompetent, leads the charge.

For her part, Miller is compromised in the investigation: She is best friends with Danny's mom, Beth (Whittaker), and her son, Tom (Adam Wilson) grew up with the victim.

Everyone in Broadchurch, it seems, has a dark secret. They are revealed one by one as the effects of Danny's death radiate out like ripples in a pond.

Danny's father Mark (Andrew Buchan) comes under suspicion when he refuses to provide an alibi for the night of the murder. What was he up to? Why is Danny's blog filled with vague accusations against him?

Questions arise with each episode and morph into accusations. Truth gets twisted by the hungry reporters -- and people begin to suffer.

What role did the old shopkeeper Jack (David Bradley), who ran the town's version of the boy scouts, have in Danny's life? Is he a pedophile?

What about the Rev. Paul Coates (Arthur Darvill), who leads the school's computer club and looks so anguished when he sees the Latimers? And local cleaner Susan Wright (Pauline Quirke), who skulks around town with her mangy dog and lives in a creepy trailer park?

Who's to say Miller's son Tom wasn't involved? Why does he delete all his e-mails and text messages the minute he's told of Danny's death?

For all its clever plotting and its breathtaking ability to connect multiple story lines and character strands, Broadchurch also displays impressive emotional depth and maturity.

Never maudlin or sentimental, it captures with rare effect the Latimers' suffering, Hardy's gnawing self-doubt, Miller's shattered faith in her neighbors, and the townspeople's fear -- and their resilience as a community.

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