There has always been an abundance of crime dramas on TV, both here and across the pond. Most are episodic procedurals that focus on lazy cases of the week and have zero regard for character development or genuine suspense. That’s right, I’m talking about you CSI: Computer Crime Stuff or whatever the hell you’re called. I can’t watch any of those shows. I need an actual arc I can get invested in. Thankfully, we’ve been graced these past couple of years with a number of genuinely terrific crime shows that care far more about their characters than about who shot who and where and why and with what. True Detective comes to my mind immediately but there’s also Fargo, Hannibal, and Justified. Britain gave us the profoundly sad Broadchurch and the tense and disturbing The Fall. Both were well written, morally complex programs that took great care to focus on the emotional toll violent crimes take on the lives of the people meant to solve them. But the best of the British crimes dramas–by far–is Happy Valley. I’ve written about it twice already but thought it was time to provide a little more detail as to why you need to stop what you’re doing and watch it immediately. All six episodes of the first season are available on Netflix so if you’re still snowed in, I recommend you pour yourself a stiff drink and settle down with Sgt. Catherine Cawood as she patrols the not so peaceful peaceful streets of Yorkshire Valley.
The series begins as Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) finds herself having to talk down a young man threatening suicide. His girlfriend just dumped him so his natural reaction was to go to the local park, douse his body in gasoline, and threaten to set himself on fire. Catherine speaks to the boy in a parental tone that makes her seem both authoritative and relatable. She sympathizes with his plight and talks candidly about her own hard life to show him that he doesn’t have it that bad. It’s a clever way to introduce us to our main character and a darkly comedic opening scene that sets the tone for what’s to come. Much of Happy Valley is funny and warm but there’s always the sense that something dangerous is lurking right around the corner and it could pounce at any minute.
But back to Catherine for the moment. She’s a fascinating character, one who has suffered through some of the worst emotional hardships a person can go through and yet still maintains her role as an intelligent police officer and caring mother. We learn early on that her daughter committed suicide years prior after being raped by a man named Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). She gave birth to his child before killing herself and Catherine’s decision to raise the boy on her own ostracized her from the rest of her family. Her husband couldn’t deal with a living reminder of his daughter’s death. The only family member to stick by her was her sister Claire (Siobhan Finneran), a former drug addict. The two of them now live in small apartment and raise the boy as best they can. It’s not exactly going well though. He’s a violent kid and Catherine worries that he may share more than a few characteristics with his father.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to a put upon middle aged businessman named Kevin Wetherill (Steve Pemberton). Kevin is married with two children and works for a profitable company owned by Nevison Gallagher. The two men’s fathers started the company together and Kevin is resentful of Nevison for not treating him as a partner. When he asks for a raise and Nevison has to think about it, that’s the last straw for Kevin. He takes his family on holiday and runs into Ashley Cowgill, a maintenance man who moonlights as a drug runner. When Kevin discovers Ashley’s secret, he suggests the two of them make a deal: Ashley and his goons will kidnap Nevison’s daughter and split the ransom money with Kevin. It, of course, seems like a full proof plan but both Kevin and Ashley soon discover they are in over their heads. Their biggest problem turns out to be one of Ashley’s goons, a disturbed, violent man just relased from prison named Tommy Lee Royce. This puts Catherine on their tail even though she doesn’t know what they’re up to. She just wants the man who raped her daughter either dead or back behind bars and will go to any lengths to see that one of those things happen.
All of this sets Happy Valley up to be a darkly comedic caper in the vein of Fargo or any number of Elmore Leonard stories. And indeed that’s how it plays for a couple of episodes. Then things take a very dark turn thanks to Tommy Lee Royce, as he proves himself to be far more capable of violence and sadism than anyone around him thought. This raises the stakes of the show significantly and paves the way for a climactic fight scene between Royce and Catherine that is one of the most brutal I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s not a cheap trick though nor is it violence for the sake of violence. It’s an earned sequence and one that both characters have been building towards for years. When it’s over, we’re as exhausted as they are and the episode ends with a moment that somehow manages to be both tremendously moving and absolutely devastating.
The success of Happy Valley is almost entirely due to the well-written characters and perfectly cast actors. Everyone is three dimensional. There are no stock villains and no people who are there only to provide exposition. Even Royce, the show’s most vile character, is allowed to be portrayed as a real human being. Yes, he’s a monster but the show quietly suggests that he’s a victim of his circumstances. The show’s title refers to the amount of drug addicts in the Yorkshire area. It gets the nickname, ‘Happy Valley’ cuz everyone who lives there is high all the time. Having been born in one of the worst parts of the Valley, Royce was basically fated to be a criminal from the day he was born. He knows it too and that’s partly why he’s so filled with rage. Kepp in mind though, Happy Valley doesn’t ask you to sympathize with Royce. It just takes the time to establish him as an actual person, which winds up making him all the more frightening.
This is Catherine’s show though and Lancashire more than owns the role. Seriously, I cannot overstate how good she is. Doesn’t matter what she’s doing; mourning a friend, scolding her grandson, sharing a laugh with her sister, doggedly investigating, giving speeches to her staff, or chasing down criminals. She nails every moment, every character beat. The show’s creator, Sally Wainwright, reportedly wrote the role with Lancashire in mind and it’s hard to imagine anyone else as Catherine Cawood. She shines in every scene but even more so when she shares the screen with her sister. Fans of Downton Abbey will recognize Siobhan Finneran as Ms. O’Brien but the two characters couldn’t be more different. Fiercely loyal to her sister, overprotective, and sometimes naïve, she nevertheless displays a sharp intelligence that Catherine frequently dismisses. Watch the way she sits in the background during certain scenes, listening to Catherine and her peers put the pieces of the kidnapping together. She may not seem like the brightest but is able to figure out certain aspects of the case before anyone else does. The relationship between her and Catherine is the real heart of the show. Hell, the whole series could have been the two of them drinking and chatting and I probably would have found it just as riveting.
Of course, there’s a lot here to admire. Wainwright and her team of directors create a fully realized setting, one rich with hidden turmoil. The kidnapping leads Cawood to more sinister crimes in the area, even points the way towards government corruption. This is encouraging because the previous British dramas I mentioned—Broadchurch and The Fall—suffered from second seasons that struggled to find a purpose. Their main storylines were either exhausted or dragged out to the point of madness. I don’t think Happy Valley will have that problem when it returns sometime later this year. There’s a lot of mysteries for Catherine to uncover. I get the sense that Wainwright has barely scratched the surface when it comes to exploring her world.
It’s not all about the crime though. In a lesser writer’s hands, Cawood’s struggles with her family would come off as melodramatic twaddle. Not here. We understand where Catherine is coming from when it comes to raising her grandson but we understand the rest of her family’s apprehension towards the boy too, particularly her ex-husband’s. Again, no one is written without great attention to detail so when people come into conflict, we are able to see the right and wrong on both sides. A lesser show would make the kidnap victim a plot device, something for the hero to strive towards and nothing more. But here, she’s as complex a character as anyone else on the show, which makes her plight more affecting. Even Cawood’s boss, a staple of every crime drama, is allowed to be fully fleshed out. He does all the standard things a police captain in a crime drama is expected to do (take her badge away, try to push her onto a different case, etc.) but has actual, concrete reasons to do these things. There’s a great scene where Catherine rails at him for covering something up and he throws some of her questionable tactics that she’s used to him ignoring right back in her face.
So if you’re a fan of crime dramas, miss True Detective, and are disappointed by the lack of good shows on TV right now, I think it’s time to give Happy Valley a shot. Watch it for the fascinating world it lets you be a part of, watch it for the clever way it subverts a typical kidnapping plot, watch it for the gripping scenes filled with real tension, watch it for the diverse characters, the smart plotting, and the witty dialogue. But most of all, watch it for Lancashire and Finneran. They demand attention and should win all the Emmys.