Mysteries on the Small Screen: Happy Valley

Title: Happy Valley

Starring: Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran

First aired: April 2014–March 2016 (BBC)

Where you can watch it: Netflix, Amazon

Mystery Month 2017One of the most absorbing and wrenching cop shows I’ve seen in years, the ironically named Happy Valley is set in a West Yorkshire town where it sometimes seems as though half the population is trying to drink or drug themselves to death. Sarah Lancashire stars as Catherine Cawood, an overqualified, no-nonsense police sergeant trying to guide her callow subordinates through charged encounters with off-their-head locals with a minimum of collateral damage. She’s not afraid to get her hands dirty, either, whether she’s talking a drug-crazed man off a playground set or, in season two, putting a wounded sheep out of its misery with a rock.

Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood in Happy Valley

Another day, another deadbeat

Like a tough-love den mother to her police constables (and seemingly half the town), Cawood is struggling with a dark tragedy of her own: her daughter, who was raped by psychopath Tommy Lee Royce, took her own life, and Cawood is now raising the boy, Ryan (Rhys Connah) in a household that includes her recovering heroin-addict sister, Clare (Siobhan Finneran, scarcely recognizable as the hard-edged lady’s maid Sarah O’Brien in Downton Abbey). When Royce gets out of prison and falls in with a gang of kidnappers, Catherine’s police smarts and fierce urge to protect little Ryan puts them on a collision course that culminates in a truly harrowing confrontation at the end of Season One. Season Two introduces new complications but keeps Royce as a threat, albeit in a very surprising way.

This is a show by mature people, about
mature people, for mature people.

Like many contemporary British crime dramas, this is dark, dark stuff. Despite moments of black humor, it’s scary, violent, bloody, and jarring, and viewers will be unsettled by the danger to Ryan just as much as that to Cawood. But it’s not just about the chase for a kidnapper and killer—it also works well as a family drama. Cawood has committed her life to helping her grandson despite mixed feelings about his parentage, while others, including her son, are more explicitly disgusted by it. And Catherine and Clare’s relationship feels sisterly and real, grounding the show at times when the drama threatens to explode into melodrama.

Siobhan Finneran as Clare and Sarah Lancashire as Catherine in Happy Valley

Siobhan Finneran as Clare and Sarah Lancashire as Catherine

One of the things I liked most about it was the way it takes middle-aged people seriously: in an era where too few TV cops have the wrinkles suggesting they’ve earned both their heartbreak and their authority, this is a show by mature people, about mature people, for mature people. (One innocuous detail I love is that Cawood wears the same colorful scarf long after we’re tired of looking at it; a wardrobe change is the last thing her character would think about.) It’s also a very feminist show, created and written by a woman (Sally Wainwright), and starring a woman who gives one of the all-time, flat-out amazing portrayals of toughness even as she struggles to accept her own feelings. The male characters, vivid and well acted, range from a successful but vulnerable businessman to, in Season Two, a weak cop and a recovering alcoholic struggling to rebuild his life after pissing it down the drain.

Rumor has it Season Three is in the works, coming no sooner than 2018—I eagerly await it. Despite the agony I know I’ll feel watching, I wouldn’t miss a moment.


Dark Crime Dramas Set in Northern England:

 The Dark Winter, by David Mark

Death in Dark Waters, by Patricia Hall

 A Dying Fall, by Elly Griffiths

Shades of Death, by Aline Templeton

 Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson




About the Author:

Keir Graff is Executive Editor of Booklist Publications and the author of six books. His most recent is the middle-grade novel, The Phantom Tower (2018). Follow him on Twitter at @Booklist_Keir.

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