Why 'Gracepoint' feels almost too good for network TV

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If the new Fox drama "Gracepoint" looks too good to be on network TV, that's because it's stacked with the kind of talent you normally see only on cable. And the work here is so good it could help change the way networks do drama in the future.

Starring in the series about life in a small Northern California coastal community after the murder of a 12-year-old boy are David Tennant ("Broadchurch") and recent Emmy winner Anna Gunn ("Breaking Bad"). Gunn is outstanding as a police detective who has lived in the town her whole life, but only now starts to plumb the depths of lies, secrets and evil beneath the surface. If you thought she was good in "Breaking Bad," you just might be astonished by what she does here.

The showrunners are Anya Epstein and Dan Futterman, who wrote and produced HBO's "In Treatment." In addition to working on that groundbreaking series with Gabriel Byrne, Futterman earned an Academy Award nomination with his script for the feature film "Capote," while Epstein was a staff writer for "Homicide: Life on the Street." The two, who have been married for 14 years, met in Fells Point while working on the cop drama.

So, how does Fox of all channels wind up with the kind of talent you'll see nowhere else on network TV this side of "The Good Wife?" By breaking from the assembly-line manufacturing model of producers cranking out 22 or 23 episodes a season and actors signing on to exclusive long-term deals that can lock them up for six or seven years of that grind if the series is successful.

In making "Gracepoint," which debuts Thursday night, as an open-ended 10-episode series, Fox is imitating the business model long used by British TV for series such as "Broadchurch," on which it is based. Premium U.S. cable channels like HBO have also been working with this template for years, most recently with "True Detective."

That's how you get a Woody Harrelson or Matthew McConaughey to work in front of the TV cameras: You make it a short-term commitment and give them the latitude to take the time they feel they need to make quality television. And it's the same in trying to land writing and producing talent such as Epstein and Futterman.

"The model here [10 episodes] absolutely played a role in me wanting to do this series," Epstein said in a telephone interview. "It's just so much less of a machine this way, rather than trying to pump out 22 or 23 episodes."

And Epstein says she'll do more network drama if it's in nontraditional formats like "Gracepoint."

"I would work only in this way if possible," she said. "I find it far more preferable. And it does seem to be more and more popular. Cable has certainly been open to this for a while. But for the networks to begin to explore it is hugely exciting for me."

In terms of format, "The more flexibility, the better," Epstein added. "The more flexible the networks are, the more it's going to help with creativity."

She pointed to the example of HBO's unusual schedule for "In Treatment," which was adapted from an Israeli series.

"HBO took a tremendous leap when they put 'In Treatment' on the air," she said. "That was a show that was completely unheard of here, and HBO aired it every night of the week the first season — as the original aired in Israel. Who would ever think to do that here? But HBO did."

Given the success that HBO and other cable outlets have enjoyed in breaking the mold, Epstein wonders why the networks haven't tried before to break from a format that has held for more than four decades.

"Why not make three-episode stories? Why not make yearlong stories?" she asks. "I think that every story has its own natural format. And the more they're wiling to go with that, the better."

The format in "Gracepoint" is the murder mystery and investigation into the death of Danny Solano (Nikolas Filipovic). Fox made seven of the 10 episodes available, so I cannot say whether the story is played out at the end of 10 hours. But Epstein says the possibility is there to continue for a second season. The original British version, written by Chris Chibnall and produced by ITV in 2013, is entering its second season.

Epstein and Futterman stick closely to the British version in the first two episodes of their adaptation. But by episode 3, the narrative starts taking new and surprising turns. Even if it didn't depart that much from the British version, Gunn's performance alone as Detective Ellie Miller would justify the adaptation.

We first meet Miller walking down the main street in Gracepoint on her way back to work after a vacation. The sun is shining, her arms are full of gifts for co-workers and you get a sense of how pleasant her life has been up until now when she says, "I'm good at vacations."

But she hardly gets through the door and into handing out the gifts when the chief of police calls her into his office. The sunshine in her personality is instantly lost when he tells her the job of top detective that she thought was hers went to someone else while she was away: a new guy, Emmett Carver (Tennant), who he hired from outside.

Angered by a perceived betrayal (the chief had indicated he wanted a woman in the job), Miller quickly finds herself being bossed around by her new, taciturn and surly supervisor.

He calls her "Miller," even after she tells him she hates "the whole last name thing." His answer to virtually every request she makes is "no." The first time he says it, with the authority and finality that Tennant brings to the word, Miller's head literally snaps back at the force of it.

"His use of the word 'no' is a way that Carver has of maintaining command and maintaining his privacy, which he very much wants, while creating some distance from her and the case," Epstein said. "Once we found how good Tennant was in using that word, we found ourselves putting it in whenever we could."

The interplay between Gunn and Tennant as their characters move into the investigation is a delight. As much as I raved about the back-and-forth of McConaughey and Harrelson in "True Detective," this combination is richer in some ways because of the added dimensions of gender and power.

Listen to Gunn's murmured — and sometimes not so murmured — asides at the rudeness of her new boss. Note the grudging and delayed way she'll tack a "sir" to the end of a remark. She manages to make a courtesy title into an insult.

But Gunn also makes the viewer feel the real anger and even pain her character now finds in a job she once loved. And she can't afford to quit. She's the breadwinner in her household. Her husband stays home and takes care of their two children, one of whom was best friends with the boy who was murdered.

And like almost everyone else in Gracepoint, her son is not what he appears to be. This is a kid with real issues and secrets. That's another whole field of anxiety and pain that Gunn's Miller hasn't the time to even start to explore as Carver drives them to find the killer.

As for Carver, he's the lawman of Western lore riding into this small town, hoping to restore the sense of law, order and safety it once knew — while Miller is representative of the town itself and its descent into the knowledge of how dark and hard life and death can be.

Being "good" at vacations is no longer good enough in Gracepoint once Danny Solano is dead.

On TV: "Gracepoint" premieres at 9 p.m. Oct. 2.

Correction: An earlier version said Futterman won an Oscar for  "Capote." He was nominated for it.