While we don’t cover a lot of Acorn TV here on RogerEbert.com, I’ve always liked what they do, and jumped at the chance to review a new thriller that claimed to be cut from the same cloth as one of the best shows of all time, “Broadchurch.” Sure, there are parallels between “Deadwater Fell,” premiering stateside tonight after a January run in the U.K., but the season is ultimately a frustrating product, a series that doesn’t live up to its potential either in casting or premise. It’s one of those mystery series that plays games with its viewers instead of presenting them with a convincing case to solve or characters in which to invest. By the end, I felt manipulated more than intrigued, and left with a hollow feeling only slightly alleviated by watching a great actor do his best to hold a show together as it got less and less interesting.
Daisy Coulam (“Grantchester”) created “Deadwater Fell,” and, like so many mini-series, it opens with a tragedy. A Scottish village just small enough so everyone basically knows one another is rocked by an unimaginable event. The Kendrick home is ablaze in the middle of the night, and townspeople race to save whomever they can from the raging fire. They pull Tom Kendrick (David Tennant) from the home, barely alive, but they can’t save his wife Kate (Anna Madeley) or three daughters. They’re all dead. And then the authorities discover that the Kendrick family have needle marks in their arms. They were drugged to make sure they were asleep when the fire was set. With an outsider quickly ruled out this means one of two things. Either mom drugged and killed her family … or dad did.
Most of the townspeople seem to expect option A. After all, Kate was dealing with depression, and Tom was drugged too. But a family friend named Jess (Cush Jumbo) and her husband, Police Sergeant Steve Campbell (Matthew McNulty) start to suspect there’s more to Tom Kendrick than meets the eye. Through flashbacks, we see scenes that alternately support either theory. Yes, Kate seemed to be dealing with depression, but was Tom pushing her into it? Jess is our eyes into this mystery, her uncertainty mirroring our own as we question if this is the story of a tragic suicide or a man who killed his entire family. As you might imagine, neither answer exactly comforts poor Jess.
David Tennant is simply a phenomenal actor, always able to find nuance in anything he does from “Broadchurch” to “Doctor Who” to “Jessica Jones.” He turns Tom into a captivating mystery, the kind of charismatic man who could easily use that charm to malevolent ends in his private life. Or maybe he’s being framed for something truly horrible. Jumbo is very good as well, conveying the spiral of grief and suspicion, and I particularly liked a few beats from Maureen Beattie as Tom’s mother.
No one in “Deadwater Fell” is bad, but they’re ultimately slaves to a cheap, manipulative mystery. Series like this can’t be too reliant on the whodunit or they will end up shallow. “Broadchurch” is about what is revealed in the wake of a crime as much as the crime itself. And there are times when “Deadwater Fell” feels like it wants to do that, such as in how it impacts Jess and Steve, but it always quickly pivots back to the did-he-or-didn’t-he that drives the plot to its unsatisfying conclusion. You should definitely check out Acorn TV more often, and we will be covering more of their output over the coming weeks as we’re all stuck at home more than ever before, but don’t expect “Broadchurch” if you choose to start your journey at “Deadwater Fell.”
Whole season screened for review.