Gracepoint Review: A Boy's Murder Unearths a Small Town's Dark Secrets

Gracepoint Review: Fox Premieres Broadchurch Adaptation
David Tennant and Anna Gunn in Gracepoint
Ed Araquel/FOX

updated 10/02/2014 AT 07:40 PM EDT

originally published 10/02/2014 AT 03:45 PM EDT

It's impossible to approach Fox's new crime mystery, Gracepoint, without first discussing Broadchurch – the moody British police procedural that was a hit overseas in the spring of 2013, made the move to American cable boxes later that summer and emerged as a binge-watch success story this past winter.

Fox is now betting big that by importing the melodrama to Northern California, straightening out the accents, ratcheting up the drama and bathing the series in the spotlight of prime time, Gracepoint will trump its predecessor's success.

The network might just be right.

No doubt I am their ideal viewer: I'm a ravenous binge-watcher (Friday Night Lights), love a good crime mystery (Top of the Lake) but somehow missed the Broadchurch boat.

I come to Gracepoint with minimal baggage, no real expectations and piqued curiosity – and by the end of the premiere episode (which airs on Fox on Thursday night), I was thoroughly hooked by this dark blend of mysterious corpses, police department feuds and the shifting sands of a picturesque community coming undone.

While it's ultimately the ripple effects following a murder that take center stage in Gracepoint, the series premiere is chiefly concerned with establishing a sinister and surreal crime scene: Beneath the towering cliffs of the California shoreline, on a rocky beach that drops rapidly into a churning sea, lies the body of a young boy.

It's a shocking crime for such a sleepy seaside town – even more surprising when investigators first determine that the boy didn't jump from the overlook above and later track down late-night security camera footage that shows him casually skateboarding down a deserted Main Street.

Many questions emerge: Where was he going? Whom did he meet? Where is his skateboard? Why was his body dumped – and why that location?

Longtime local detective Ellie Miller (Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn) and new department hire Emmett Carver (Broadchurch's David Tennant) are left with more questions than evidence, and from the outset it's a challenging assignment – both in terms of clues and personnel.

Miller first meets Carver the same day she learns he was handed the promotion she had once been promised. Miller is a Gracepoint veteran, a woman who treats the town's residents as if they were members of her own family and a mother of a boy who was good friends with the deceased.

Carver, to the contrary, is a transplant from the big city who seems to be seeking refuge from his own personal demons. He's cold and methodical; where Miller sees grieving neighbors, Carver sees a never-ending lineup of suspects with hidden motives. When the two detectives go to interview the dead boy's grieving family, Miller is all tears and heartache while Carver takes methodical notes on alibis.

Tennant is the big carryover from Broadchurch; playing the same character with an impressive American accent, he marches through the community convinced all the sweetness and sensitivity is just an act. He schedules a press conference to encourage citizens to report strange behaviors from their friends and neighbors, stoking paranoia as he turns family members against one another. He is shrewd and skeptical, and Tennant plays him with the swagger of a man who knows there are monsters among us.

Gunn, meanwhile, imparts Miller with a wider emotional spectrum and an inner compass that's always pointed toward optimism. But she too can be a ruthless investigator, and as stories start to change and clues come to light, she becomes a sharper, more connected force to be reckoned with.

As a raw police procedural, Gracepoint thrives thanks to legitimately unsettling twists, sharp revelations that focus our attention on new suspects. But it's in Carver and Miller’s competing worldviews that the show finds something more substantial to work with.

The premiere episode both begins and ends with shots of the sea at night – pitch-black, roiling, the occasional silhouette of a giant whale breaking the waves. There's a whole hidden ecosystem of dark truths out there, lurking just beneath the calm surface, and the devious fun/terror of Gracepoint is witnessing these reveals, as a small town's true identity is laid bare.

Gracepoint debuts Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on FOX.

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