Review: Netflix's 'Happy Valley' a swift, brutal crime story
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.
If you've already watched all six episodes, then you're very familiar with the scene in question (and towards the end of this review, I'll get into some more explicit spoilers about that and the rest of the season). If you haven't watched it yet, then that scene in the basement, and the entirety of this first season, are reminders that the originality of a story are often much less important than the way that it's told, in both execution and form.
Like "Fargo" (movie and TV show), "Happy Valley" is a small-town crime story with an unconventional female cop as its heroine. Like "Fargo" (movie only), much of the plot spins out of a kidnapping plot initiated by a resentful little weasel who otherwise can't get money he feels is owed to him. And like so many police procedurals on both sides of the Atlantic, it features many scenes where the female victim whimpers in terror as she awaits the next horrible step in her ordeal.
But "Happy Valley," created by Sally Wainwright and primarily directed by Euros Lyn, transcends the various tropes and familiar character archetypes that fill the narrative.
Start with the cop, Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), middle-aged and weary, a former detective now back in uniform because she needs time to care for her grandson in the wake of her daughter's suicide. Hers is a very specific story, and Lancashire's performance is equally specific — the only TV cop she reminded me of even vaguely was later-period Sipowicz on "NYPD Blue" — and quite powerful.
Then move onto the format: six episodes and out. American cable dramas have been doing 13-episode seasons for years, and recently there's been a push for many to do 10 or fewer per season. Sometimes, that number feels too small to adequately service the many sprawling plotlines of your average cable drama, but some shows hurt themselves badly dragging their feet to keep the story from wrapping up too early. Though "Happy Valley" is as much character study as crime story, six episodes feels about right, particularly when it comes to witnessing the horrors that kidnapping victim Ann (actress Charlie Murphy, not to be confused with Rick James' nemesis) experiences. Too many crime shows, both serialized and standalone, revel in their victims' prolonged suffering. "Happy Valley" takes a much more thoughtful approach, and part of avoiding the wallowing is to collapse the amount of time we have to watch her endure this situation. Nothing about the story overstays its welcome.
And what ultimately makes the show so strong is the way it treats Ann's suffering, and her parents', and everyone else touched by the crime, as something with long-reaching emotional weight — which is partly why (in addition to great direction and performances) the basement scene in episode 4 hits as hard as it does. We see just enough of what's happening to Ann so we can appreciate its impact, but not so much that it feels (as these scenes do on "Criminal Minds," "The Following," and other shows) like a victimization fetish video. Ann is made into a character, and not just an object to be taken and abused. And Catherine's own backstory — which winds up tying her to one of Ann's kidnappers(*) — also paints a complex portrait of the way a violent crime can forever alter the lives not only of the victim, but everyone around them. (It makes me think of Christopher Moltisanti's line about how the violent actions he and the other wiseguys commit have ripples, "Like a pebble in a lake. Even the fish feel it.")
(*) The intersection of the two stories should feel contrived but mostly doesn't, because the Yorkshire valley community in which the show is set is so small, and because the value the series gets out of that coincidence is worth the bother of it.
"Happy Valley" is so effective at what it sets out to do, and so neat in fitting all its pieces together (up to the way the story's climax evokes a much milder incident from early in the series), that I'm a bit ambivalent about the fact that a second season has already been ordered. Lancashire is so good that I won't necessarily mind getting to watch more of her in this role, but this particular story is so unique to her in a way that no sequel season can be — certainly not without cheapening what happens here — and a part of me wishes it could remain this simple, brutally elegant six-part story.
But that's a worry for another day. I was otherwise occupied when this first season arrived on Netflix, and kept hearing friends, fellow TV critics and readers raving about it. By the time I got to it, I wondered if the show could live up to the hype. It did that — and more.
(Click through to the next page for some spoiler-y thoughts on this first season.)