The last few years have seen several mini-series (is that what we call them now?) featuring strong but flawed women in positions of authority, usually with the police. Prime Suspect with Helen Mirren is the biggest influence on these series. Most of them come from England: The Bletchley Circle (ex-codebreakers during WWII solve crimes), Broadchurch (Olivia Colman and David Tennant, remade as Gracepoint for U.S. television), The Fall with Gillian Anderson, and, from New Zealand, Jane Campion and Gerard Lee’s Top of the Lake, with Elisabeth Moss. Now we have Happy Valley, written by Sally Wainwright and starring Sarah Lancashire as a police sergeant in a small town with a drug problem, which has been made available in the U.S. via Netflix.
As is usual for these series, the acting is good, and the lead is more than good. You could argue that without a compelling actor in the lead role, you wouldn’t have much more than an adult procedural, and we’ve got plenty of those. This time it’s Sarah Lancashire, unknown to me although she’s 50 years old and has been acting for at least half of her life. (I didn’t recognize anyone in the cast.) Lancashire has the weariness of the cop down perfectly. And her character has a personal connection to the kidnapping that is the focus of the police’s attention: the prime suspect, in her mind at least, is a young man who, in her mind at least, raped her daughter, who later killed herself.
The element of revenge isn’t new to Happy Valley … there are plenty of examples of crime-solvers with a past. In Happy Valley, we’ve moved past the time when Helen Mirren’s Jane Tennison had to fight for respect from her co-workers and underlings. There are no assumptions about Lancashire’s Catherine Cawood … her gender is barely addressed. But the specifics of her desire for revenge, rooted in what she believes was the rape of her daughter, are connected to her being a woman. That the kidnap victim is a young girl ties Catherine to the case as well.
I’m describing a series that is a notch above the rest, if not a classic to be remembered in the years to come. If you like mysteries with good acting and a strong sense of place in its setting, Happy Valley is for you.
Except … even in these times when seemingly anything is possible, I must note that when Happy Valley is violent, it is frighteningly so. It’s not so much what they show … rather, it’s what we know is being done, and how it grabs us emotionally. Apparently there were some complaints when the series ran in the UK, leading to a response from Wainwright, saying she was “saddened” by the attempt “to make a thing of it, when shows like Game of Thrones have so much gratuitous violence against lots of people,” adding “All the women in this are seen to suffer in some way.” By far the most disturbing scene came at the end of the fourth episode, but one reason it disturbed was that there were only a couple of scenes like it … Alan Sepinwall did his usual excellent job of describing the feelings that scene elicited:
I have watched a lot of great television this year, yet few scenes in 2014 had the kind of physical effect on me like the closing minutes of the fourth episode of "Happy Valley," the BBC crime drama that Netflix added to its library back in August. As the scene went along, I stopped recording my usual notes and just stared at the television. I had to remind myself to take a breath a few times. I'm pretty sure I left my thumbprint permanently impressed to the underside of my desk from gripping it too hard at one point. It's a cliffhanger ending, and the Netflix interface meant that resolution was only a simple click away, yet I had to put the show on hold for a few hours just to get that moment out of my system. At that moment, I was in no condition to jump straight to the next episode and potentially see that things had gone poorly for the characters in danger. No way.
I know that Alan’s description is enough to convince many people that Happy Valley isn’t for them. That’s one reason I’ve included it here. But something else demands notice: in a world of Walking Dead and Sons of Anarchy, where butchering happens with clockwork regularity, Happy Valley gives us a feel for the impact violent acts have on good people. Grade for Season One: B+.