Happy Valley: A Review

Happy Valley debuted on BBC back at the tail end of April with very little fanfare. But over the course of it’s six episodes it gained a strong following through word of mouth to the point where various media outlets praised it as one of the most gripping programmes on British television.

Happy Valley follows the story of Cathy Cawood. A Yorkshire police sergeant, played by Sarah Lancashire, who is still affected by the suicide of her teenage daughter eight years previously and who’s world is turned upside down by the release of her dead daughter’s rapist from prison. On top of that, Cathy must contend with a kidnapping plot of a prominent businessman’s daughter.

I was initially turned on to Happy Valley via the large amount of critical outpouring it received. It was described as a ‘stark and powerful crime drama’ which touched upon drugs, family tension and a little bit of police corruption. It sounded like it was right up my (happy) valley and so I watched the series over the course of the latest bank holiday weekend.

What I found was a crime drama that seemed inspired by crime thrillers over in America. Both on the small screen and the big. The most obvious comparison can be made to Fargo. Happy Valley’s kidnap plot feels like it’s been ripped straight from the film right down to the two kidnappers. One, the bumbling crook who’s heart isn’t exactly in it and two, the one that will do whatever it takes to ensure the plot goes down to the very wire. I wouldn’t say this is a bad thing. Happy Valley does manage to put a Yorkshire twist on the proceedings and isn’t afraid to go darker than Fargo ever did. I think I may be alone in this, but I also felt a little bit of Justified, the TV series, in Happy Valley. I enjoyed the setting as a character itself. The picturesque typical images that you think of when you think of Yorkshire (Yellowstone cottages, roaming green fields) are contrasted with the murky council houses and high rises of the modern day in a similar vein to how Justified mixes it’s modern day setting with it’s Southern hick, western aesthetic. With a line of violence drawn straight down the middle in both shows.

The violence of Happy Valley was a much talked about feature of the show when it first aired, receiving various complaints that it was too much for television screens. Those people had a point. Happy Valley does feature some scenes that are fairly brutal in it’s depiction of violence (both physical and sexual). Though I felt it was no more brutal than anything seen on a channel like HBO or Showtime. Hell, even FX. I think the displeasure of violence in Happy Valley is just heightened due to it taking place against the backdrop of Yorkshire. The home of Emmerdale Farm! Though I felt that there was one scene that did go over the top to the point where I felt that the scene was not trying to tell you something about the characters through the use of violence but was just being gratuitous for gratuitous’ sake.

Sarah Lancashire is the star of Happy Valley and she conveys a range of emotions throughout the six episodes. She deserves every praise she receives. It’s hard to believe she used to be in Coronation Street! I haven’t really gone into the more personal, character based, side of Happy Valley in this review yet but that is where Lancashire shines the most. She plays a woman who is still affected by her daughter’s suicide. On top of that, she has a son who doesn’t speak to her, an ex husband who comes looking for booty calls, a job where she is failed by her superiors and she is raising the son of her dead daughter who was a result of the rape that drove her to suicide. Cathy doesn’t have it well and it’s easy to think that all this misery piled on to her is just taking it to the extreme but I believed in Lancashire’s performance. I believed her when Cathy has a cheeky cigarette as an escape from her life, I believed her when she snapped at her grandson and I believed her when she flew off the handle at her sister, the only person who will never leave her side.

But Lancashire’s performance shouldn’t detract from any other actor in the show. I think Siobhan Finneran as Cathy’s aforementioned sister should deserve praise. She quietly goes about the series doing really good stuff with the material given to her and I really enjoyed the relationship between her and Lancashire. I think praise should also go to James Norton who played Tommy Lee Royce, the rapist of Cathy’s daughter. Despite my misgivings about his character (see below), I felt that James Norton did well in his attempt at humanising Tommy.

Tommy Lee Royce is a terrible human being. As well as everything that happened before the beginning of the series with Cathy’s daughter. He spends the first three episodes leaving a trail of destruction behind. The writers really wanted it’s audience to hate Tommy. Which is why it’s slightly confusing to see in the last three episodes that they tried to humanise Tommy and make him sympathetic through showing his family life and through what really may have happened between him and Cathy’s daughter as well as the long term result of that.

On top of that, Happy Valley does have some other missteps. It’s opening scene is absolutely terrible. A scene full of clunky exposition about Cathy’s character that was terribly on the nose and not the greatest introduction to Happy Valley. There is also a scene in the third episode which was a real letdown. I won’t spoil it for you but there is a scene that was supposed to be a big turning point for Cathy and the show as a whole. It’s really well directed and the sound design is quite nice too (this coming from a guy who never really notices the sound design any other time). However it’s all wasted on a character that the audience never really knew and so the whole weight of the moment that is supposed to drop on you is actually quite light and it’s a real shame. Happy Valley also has a problem with recycling old ideas that have been done to death in various other media forms over and over. I’ll forgive them for the Fargo comparison but there are other moments that I have seen many times before and done much better than Happy Valley did them.

Overall, I would say Happy Valley is not quite worthy of the praise that it received from various critics. Perhaps it got the acclaim because it is a stark difference from a lot of other British TV drama at the moment? That’s my theory anyway. As a piece of British television, I think it’s a step in the right direction of achieving greatness as a piece of television that puts it alongside your Sopranos and Deadwood’s. I would still say that Happy Valley is worth your time especially when it’s only six episodes long at the moment. Plus I think there are hints about where the show can go from here in it’s (already commissioned) second series.

Possible minor spoilers below

I was disappointed to see that the confrontation between Cathy and the councillor with the cocaine never really went anywhere except using it as an example of where Cathy’s superiors are failing her. I would like the second season to further explore this councillor and the possible corruption that goes on in his office as a servant to the public. Ditto the higher ranks of the police and Cathy’s superiors.

Happy Valley showed us the ground level of the drugs game in Cathy’s town. It also hinted at more action higher up the drug chain. It would be nice to see more of that although I’m sceptical we will see that. However it would be nice to see more of how the drugs in the area are affecting Cathy’s town. It may be a bit like a British version of The Wire and who wouldn’t want to see that?!