In his review of Broadchurch over on Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz proclaims its excellence, but — like many critics — claims that it’s a victim of murder fatigue, that we’ve seen this “murder in a small town” template” played out too many times already. There does seem to be an inordinate number of crime-serial dramas coming out of the woodwork, but unless you’re a critic who has to watch all of these shows, or someone that insists on watching everything notable, the “murder fatigue” may not be as much of a problem for you, unless you’re simply exhausted by the thought of all of them existing. Hopefully, you’re spending some of your summer away from your television sets, at least until Breaking Bad returns, so maybe you’re not completely burned-out with ongoing, 5, 8, or 12 episode investigations into one murderer.
But let’s say you would like to watch one great murder mystery series, but you don’t know which one. Which would you choose? Here’s a short guide to the summer’s murder mystery series (at least of the ones I’ve watched), ranked from good to outstanding.
4. The Fall — There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Gillian Anderson serial killer drama, which premiered on Netflix earlier this summer (it previously aired in Britain). It is superbly acted, meticulously put together, and intriguing. Plus, there’s even a twist on your standard murder-mystery narrative, in that in the The Fall, we already know who the serial killer is. The series basically tracks both sides of an investigation: Gillian Anderson’s brilliant detective stalks a serial killer while the serial killer stalks his victims in and around Belfast. As good as it is, however, the tone was very much in line with the recent spate of serial killer dramas: Cold, clinical, almost completely devoid of emotion. It’s creepy, at times terrifying, and all brilliantly acted; however, Gillian Anderson’s no-nonsense attitude also epitomizes the tone. It’s good, but it’s not all that entertaining, and sadly, the conclusion to the five-part series is somewhat unsatisfying.
3. The Bridge — It’s not easy to pinpoint exactly what is wrong with FX’s The Bridge. There’s terrific talent on display, especially in Demian Bichir, and slightly less so in Diane Kruger, who plays the American partner with Asperger’s in this border-crossing serial killer drama. The writers have also done a great job of opening the series up, making it as much about social issues, and immigration, as the serial killer himself. The problem, I guess, with The Bridge is that — for all its admirable qualities, it’s well designed plots, and the smart acting — it’s just kind of boring. Again, it suffers from what too much of these crime mysteries suffer from: There’s no sense of humor, and Kruger’s character doesn’t really help matters since it is practically impossible to invest yourself into a character with Aspergers. Meanwhile, Bichir is the more dynamic actor, but the writers have made some weird choices with his character that make it harder to root for him, too. It’s a show that I watch and admire at times, but not a show I particularly enjoy.
2. The Killing — Now that the dust has settled on season three, and those who watched it know the outcome, would we recommend you checking out season three? Yes, definitely (if you’re going to watch two murder mysteries this summer). It is much, much improved over the dismal first two seasons to the point that it’s not even recognizable as the same show. Only Holder and Linden return in what might be considered a reboot of sorts, and even those two characters are much improved over the first two seasons. What really makes the season work, however, is Peter Sarsgaard’s death row inmate, whose storyline really allows us to get emotionally invested in the series. The red herrings, too, aren’t as annoying in that they’re not so much dead ends, as they are a means to explore other parts of the Seattle’s gritty underground, the homeless teens prostituting themselves for drugs. The middle episodes wane a little, and the ending is more surprising than it is satisfying, but it is nevertheless a good season of television and worth the 12-hour investment. Believe it or not, after season three, I’m actually hoping for a season four.
1. Broadchurch — But, if you could only pick ONE murder mystery series this summer, Broadchurch is the way to go. Granted, I’ve only seen one episode, but that one episode better than anything I’ve seen in the above three series (save for the penultimate episode of The Killing). It’s very much set up like the first season of The Killing: A kid is murdered. Two detectives are brought in to investigate, and we explore how the family of an 11-year-old boy and the town reacts to his mysterious murder. The reason it works better than The Killing, however, is that the tone is different: It’s more tender. You feel an instant closeness with the characters, who are not grim, moping, sufferers. In Broadchurch, you can feel the agony of the parents, and that’s really what also makes it so hard to watch: It’s difficult not to imagine yourself in the same situation, and there were a few moments in the pilot where I was simply overcome. It’s a lot to process. Granted, it hasn’t really explored the mystery aspects of the murder that much yet, but considering that Broachurch is the most tweeted show in the history of the UK, I’m guessing that the mystery will get very interesting, no matter the outcome. David Tennant, who plays the lead detective, and his soulful, heartbreaking eyes seals the deal, and strangely, it helps that it’s set in a beach town, so it’s not as dimly lit as your standard crime-serial drama.
Broadchurch is currently airing on BBC America, and at eight episodes long, it’s also less of a commitment than the American series above.