TV: Happy Valley (Seasons 1 & 2)

happy-valley-sarah-lancashire-dvd-cover-artThe extraordinary British series Happy Valley may not look like much at first glance: a hard-nosed female police sergeant fights crime in an economically depressed corner of northern England. What’s the big deal? Well, only this: it’s probably one of the best modern crime dramas ever made. Immersive, ingeniously structured, and powerfully feminist, it builds brilliantly on the long-form techniques of outstanding modern crime shows like Breaking Bad, Fargo, and The Shield, matching them for dramatic intensity. But while those series are overly enamored of their antiheroes—often in the service of exploring the criminal lurking within us all—Happy Valley puts that ugly glamorization in its place, redirecting the spotlight to the victims, and from destructive male impulse to inspiring female endurance.

A former detective, Catherine Cawood (the amazing Sarah Lancashire) now leads a squad of police officers in the West Yorkshire police. She took demotion in the wake of tragedy: her daughter Becky committed suicide after being raped, but not before giving birth to the rapist’s son Ryan (Rhys Connah). Catherine’s decision to raise her grandson shattered her marriage, but she’s managing the daily struggle, with the assistance of her sister Claire (Orphan Black’s Siobhan Finneran, terrific here). Of course, Claire has her own problems: a history of alcoholism and drug addiction.

The first season’s mystery begins with a run-of-the-mill accountant named Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton). In some ways analogous to Breaking Bad’s Walter White or Fargo’s Lester Nygaard, Weatherill is a walking midlife crisis, a self-proclaimed loser and small-minded malcontent who sees his respectable but hard-luck life as a crushing disappointment. His envious grudge against his powerful, successful boss Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) leads him down an unexpected criminal path. When he stumbles across the operation of an organized crime outfit shortly after being snubbed for a raise, he impulsively decides to get into bed with the criminals by serving up Nevison’s daughter Ann (Charlie Murphy) in a half-baked kidnapping plot. His intentions are spiteful and avaricious, but he’s opened a more destructive can of worms than he realizes. One of the kidnappers’ minions happens to be Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton)—Becky’s rapist and Ryan’s biological father, just released from prison. In light of past events, Royce is already on Catherine’s radar, but his involvement in Ann’s kidnapping turns into a reign of terror, setting Catherine on a collision course with the architect of her grief-stricken life.

Season one is a shattering procedural, full of graphic violence and disturbing situations. But it held me absolutely rapt, and not just with its compelling plot of escalating complications and reactive puzzle-solving. As emotionally challenging as it is, it’s also emotionally satisfying, delving deeply into the psychology of its characters—more so, perhaps, than any other show I’ve seen. Programs of this nature often conspire against the viewer, tricking them into relating to the monsters driving the calamity; meanwhile, the actions of the criminals’ adversaries are often secondary. Happy Valley flips the script, depriving its impulsive male villainy of any sympathy whatsoever, instead shining a light on the tragic and powerful resilience, primarily female, of those forced to deal with the consequences. As Catherine, Sarah Lancashire delivers one of the most gripping sustained lead performances I’v ever seen. But her resolve and constitution is matched or reflected by the many other women of the series, whether it’s Claire struggling with her addiction, Ann fighting for her life against the kidnappers, or the long-suffering wives of Weatherhill and Nevison, forced to cope with and pick up the pieces of their husband’s rash or misguided decisions. Norton’s Tommy Lee Royce is one of TV’s most broadly despicable antagonists, but in his own quiet way Pemberton’s Kevin Weatherill is just as deplorable, as are the other kidnapping conspirators who enable and exacerbate the situation. Series writer-creator Sally Wainwright doesn’t let any of them off the hook, and consistently reminds us that the people we should really care about are their innocent victims.

The equally effective second season has two thrusts. The first of these feels like a stretch, at first: a campaign of psychological warfare against Catherine, carried out by Royce with the assistance of a gaslighted accomplice, Frances Drummond (Shirley Henderson). This thread is deftly handled, ultimately, but more sure-handed is the primary criminal plot, which involves the shrewdly cast Kevin Doyle (familiar to Downton Abbey fans as the awkward butler, Molesley). Doyle plays a philandering detective, John Wadsworth, who attempts to fold the evidence of his own impulsive crime into an ongoing investigation against a serial criminal. Like Weatherill and Royce, Wadsworth views himself as a misunderstood victim, completely unwilling to concede his own considerable shortcomings. As a police insider, he engages in a delicate ploy to mislead his colleagues, but he’s no criminal mastermind; indeed, he’s a fidgety opportunist, incapable of admitting his inherent hypocrisies. Doyle is an inspired choice for this role and makes the most of it, and while his crimes don’t drive Catherine’s struggle this year, they inform it, and lead to another memorable climax between a beleagured, inspiring hero and a truly monstrous villain.

Happy Valley is exceptional television, a gripping, intense journey that breaks new ground in serial crime drama by finally shattering the criminal mystique. Instead, it creates a much more necessary one: a heart-wrenching, breathtaking awe for the resilient survivors of the world’s unspeakable evils.

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