In the series 1 trailer, veteran cop Catherine Cawood explains a lot of the problems plaguing her urban Yorkshire beat in an early interaction with a drunken (drug-addled?) perp: she’s divorced; she lives with her sister, a recovering heroin addict; one of her kids doesn’t talk to her and the other is dead (of suicide); she looks after her young grandson Ryan (conceived through rape, Catherine maintains her daughter told her). And even after that monologue she’s still got secrets: she’s sleeping with her ex; she’s never dealt with her grief over her daughter’s death and is experiencing panic attacks complete with hallucinations; and she’s trying to keep an eye on her daughter’s rapist, who has just been released from jail after serving time for drug offenses.
There’s a lot going on in this series.
The story arc of the first series follows the events of a kidnapping-gone-wrong, and it features ordinary (not particularly evil, which is what makes the entire thing so unnerving) people often making really terrible decisions. And even when the decisions aren’t obviously terrible, they still torture the characters making them. Should Catherine have adopted her daughter’s son, as she couldn’t stand to see him raised in care, no matter who his father was? Should her ex have divorced her for making that choice (and should he have gone on to marry a younger woman)? Should the man whose daughter is kidnapped have decided slightly sooner than he did to give an employee a raise?
The bad decision-making isn’t the only thing that’s tough to watch in this series. It’s not as graphic as many crime and domestic dramas* seem to have become, but it doesn’t an excellent job of creeping the hell out of you with what it does show. Trust me on this. One of the show’s villains, Tommy Lee Royce (played by James Norton) is so disturbing that you’ll really just want to look away from him, which is a shame, because James Norton is so, so pretty.
I’ve not yet seen the second series, but by all accounts it is as good as the first. The series is set in a depressed Yorkshire urban area and other viewers have reported that, especially for the second series, it helps to set the subtitles to “on” so you can understand what they’re saying. But I know that you and I are way more sophisticated British TV viewers than that. We just watch the show again until we start to internalize the accent and we understand what they’re saying naturally. It’s tough to be a Brit TV purist but someone’s got to do it.
*Although I just read some other reviews of it that pointed out, yes, there’s some graphic violence in terms of police officers being attacked. I think I blocked that out in my memory because I found the non-“graphic” parts of this show more psychologically horrifying than the fight scenes.
Years aired: 2014-2016
Episodes and seasons: 12 60-minute episodes over the course of 2 seasons (with a third series announced, 2016)
Christmas episodes? No. That would be WAY too happy for Happy Valley
Primary Stars: Sarah Lancashire as Catherine Cawood; James Norton as Tommy Lee Royce; Siobhan Finneran as Catherine’s sister Clare Cartwright; Charlie Murphy as Ann Gallagher; Steve Pemberton as Kevin Weatherill
Creator and primary writers: Sally Wainwright
Setting: Yorkshire (Urban)
First aired on: BBC One
Streams on: Netflix
Fun trivia: The creator and writer, Sally Wainwright, is also the creator and writer of the hugely popular (and concurrent; how is she doing all this?) series Last Tango in Halifax and Scott & Bailey.
All out of Happy Valley episodes? Then watch these next, luv:
Broadchurch. Starring David Tennant and Olivia Colman, this series (of 16 hour-long episodes in 2 seasons) also features a town where everyone knows your name, only not in a cozy way. The series opens with the murder of a twelve-year-old boy, and what unfolds is a number of nasty twists concerning what the community members have all been up to, as well as a number of worrying turns when the new detective in charge of the investigation turns out to have health and former case problems of his own. It’s an unnerving series and doesn’t pack quite the emotional punch of Happy Valley, in my opinion, but I think they’re still similar series in terms of their exploring of the seedy underbellies of what look to be the most normal of lives.
You might want to consider shows in which women cops steal the show: Vera (starring the fabulous Brenda Blethyn) as the extremely difficult police DCI Vera Stanhope; classic series Prime Suspect, starring Helen Mirren as the prickly DI Jane Tennant; and Wainwright’s other cop drama, Scott & Bailey, featuring two women cops who can’t often depend on anyone else but each other for professional skill or interpersonal support.
Line of Duty. Another cop drama, featuring a unit of cops that function as internal affairs investigators. In my opinion this is perhaps the most similar series to Happy Valley in terms of its characters making terrible decisions that will make viewers shout at their device (“Come on, turn that person in, this is totally going to come back and bite you in the ass!”) and despair for human nature. As a bonus, series 2 features the fantastic actress Keeley Hawes, who could give Sarah Lancashire a run for her money in the Best British Actress Ever contest.
George Gently. A historical cop drama (1960s and 70s), but one that does a similarly good job of showing the unnerving beneath the starkly beautiful scenery and conventional lives. Plus, if there’s anyone who’s as hypnotic to watch as Sarah Lancashire, it’s Martin Shaw.