Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

Duncan Greive: Broadchurch takes a brave new turn

David Tennant and Olivia Colman star in Broadchurch. Photo / Supplied
David Tennant and Olivia Colman star in Broadchurch. Photo / Supplied

"Why did he choose me?"

One simple, direct question. Five words, five syllables, delivered without fanfare. Yet it is absolutely devastating in terms of what it communicates.

The line comes toward the end of the first episode of Broadchurch's third season, which aired on Sunday night on TVNZ1, and showed that this small-town, crime drama remains the gold standard for that genre.

It's become a crowded market. There are now dozens of shows fitting that description, many commissioned as a direct result of the massive ratings success of Broadchurch. Many are very good, and some have champions who scorn Broadchurch for reasons which seem to amount to ''it's too popular''.

Yet the pivot this season represents shows the immense confidence and license of Chris Chibnall, the Broadchurch showrunner. That line is delivered by a survivor, not a victim, the crime at the heart of this season is rape, and not murder.

The show is hardly unique in depicting that agony on screen. Game of Thrones uses it constantly and almost casually. SVU has built a franchise around its resolution. Yet rarely has the crime's aftermath been given as nuanced and impactful a depiction as this.

The entire episode takes place in a sliver of time which might be sprinted through in a couple of minutes in other contexts. We open with a middle-aged woman named Trish Winterman, mute and shivering, while Ellie and Alec arrive at the scene. There are shots of her arms and feet, bloodied and torn.

The extent to which her body is now critical evidence is displayed in minute detail. The plastic sheet in the car, the oral swab taken so that she can drink a cup of tea.

But also the doubt which she, like so many survivors of such crimes, must endure. A young, bright female police officer wonders aloud why she took 48 hours to report the rape before being swiftly shut down.

This is portrayed not as a passing moment, but as woven into the collegial atmosphere. Police, like any other institution, are made up of humans, some of whom are better at their jobs than others. Similarly, the black humour of the various moving parts of law enforcement is part of what grounds it in a harsh but recognisable reality.

A slow pace is maintained throughout: the entire episode encompasses little more than the forensic examination of Winterman and the crime scene. By its close we have no suspect, no real clue.

Yet what has been communicated is vast; the show is so careful, at pains to emphasise how rare stranger rape is, the conflicting forces acting on all involved in the crime and its investigation and how even nominal allies such as police or friends will often do wrong.

The episode lingers long after it has finished, containing the usual sophisticated and provocative tone of this kind of drama, while also something else: A familiar crime rendered in unfamiliar detail.

The opposite is true of American Bitch, the third of Girls' final season, airing on SoHo. It takes place entirely in one apartment, but covers an exponentially more common form of sexual assault in a way I can never recall seeing on screen.

Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in Girls. Photo / Supplied
Lena Dunham as Hannah Horvath in Girls. Photo / Supplied

The show's creator and star Lena Dunham has become an ever-more controversial figure, particularly in terms of her relationship with race, which gets scant notice in Girls. But American Bitch shows just how extraordinarily smart her articulation of contemporary feminist (perhaps white feminist, but still) issues remains.

She, as Hannah Horvath, visits the home of Chuck Palmer, an acclaimed novelist she grew up idolising, at his invitation.

She's there because she wrote an essay for an obscure blog synthesising allegations made by four women of sexual assault, and he wants the opportunity to present his side as a way of showing the dangers of just believing women in this context as a default setting.

For much of the episode the tone is tense and ambiguous. There's a strong sense at times that Dunham might be creating a sympathetic male victim of an internet-based furore, which would be almost criminal at this moment.

Suffice it to say that it resolves in a way which is amongst the best and most powerful of any episode of this flawed but immensely powerful show.

Watching both episodes of Broadchurch and Girls back-to-back as I did on Sunday, I came away with a curious longing.

The weight of each was heavy, but I felt moved and changed afterwards. With a year of new New Zealand drama stretching out ahead of us, I hope we get a similar level of boldness and bravery from it.

Because lately, this kind of topic seems like it only ever gets tackled here on Shortland Street.

- NZ Herald

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Duncan Greive is the editor and founder of New Zealand pop culture-obsessed website The Spinoff and columnist for the NZ Herald.

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