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Review: Netflix’s ‘Happy Valley’ a swift, brutal crime story

alan-sepinwall
Senior Television Writer
11.03.14 30 Comments

Netflix

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.)

If you're reading this far, you've seen it, so let's get straight to the bullet points:

* I really like the structure of the story even within these six episodes. Catherine gets various hints about the kidnapping (Kevin's visit to the station, Helen's conversations with her sister, trailing Tommy Lee Royce to the house where they were holding Ann), but she doesn't actually learn about the kidnapping until episode 4, which is the same episode where she inadvertently discovers Ann taped up in the basement of Tommy's mother's house – which in turn makes the final two episodes an extended epilogue. The town is too small, and the kidnappers too far from criminal masterminds, for the show to have functioned with an extended hunt for Ann and her abductors.

* The fight in that basement, and the way the episode ends with Catherine lying in the street and Ann locked in Catherine's car, terrified that Tommy may emerge from the house before reinforcements arrive, was masterfully done – the best comparison to it may be Hank's gunfight with the Cousins in the “One Minute” episode of “Breaking Bad,” which was a more impressive technical achievement but had the same emotional (and, for me at least, physical) effect. That Ann winds up having to rescue her rescuer only makes it more visceral.

* Olivia Benson on “SVU” was the product of rape, so the backstory with Catherine's daughter, Tommy, and the birth of her grandson doesn't cover ground that's gone entirely untrod. (There's also some ambiguity introduced later in the season as to what actually went on between Tommy and Catherine's daughter, even though Tommy's behavior with Ann suggests Catherine has very good cause to stick her version of history.) But the devastating impact that Ryan's continued presence has had on the rest of the family – and the way that even Catherine can't stop herself at one point from treating him as a symbol of all the misery she's been through – was still very well told, and the horror of it also explains why Catherine couldn't adequately warn the boy away from Tommy. It's bad enough to tell a child he was conceived during a rape, but to then say that this rape probably drove his mother to commit suicide right after he was born? That's way too big a burden for a boy that little. And Ryan's ordeal in the finale does at least create some family conflict for the second season to deal with.

* As alluded to earlier, I liked the full circle nature of the climax. Catherine begins the series extinguishing a disturbed man who wants to set himself on fire, and ends it the same way, even if the contexts are wildly different.

* God, what an impressive little prick is Kevin. A fine performance by Steve Pemberton in what's ultimately a very unsympathetic role, even if it doesn't quite start that way. His confrontation with Nevison (whose name I can't stop saying) in the finale, in which he has bought into all the bogus justifications for setting this tragedy in motion, was very powerful.

What did everybody else think? You excited for more Sergeant Cawood adventures next year?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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Alan Sepinwall has been writing about television since the mid-'90s. He's the author of "The Revolution Was Televised," about the rise of TV's new golden age, and co-author of "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time."

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