There is emphatically not much happy going on in the BBC1/Netflix drama series Happy Valley:
But look at that face. Really look at Sarah Lancashire’s face, above, because we’ll be coming back to that.
Happy Valley is set in a town (urban center? not quite sure of the size of the city where it’s set) in Yorkshire, in an area that seems to be struggling with drug abuse, domestic abuse, crime, and numerous other social ills. Think meth production in rural Iowa or opiate and heroin addiction in Rust Belt America.
But unlike other crime or cop dramas, this one really focuses on a variety of largely ordinary and not-bad-at-heart people making TERRIBLE decisions. The first season was only six hour-long episodes, but about three hours in I almost had to stop watching because I could not stand the unrelenting, heartbreaking, sadness of it all. Very ugly things happen but the series is (mercifully) not actually that graphic. Which was a nice change. Lately in Brit and American TV it seems like violence of all types is almost lovingly choreographed and shown at length (I’m looking at you, Peaky Blinders). There’s not much of that here.* Which is not to say that it’s not horrific. When a convicted rapist has kidnapped a girl and held her in a basement, and the cop Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) later busts into that (now empty) basement and sees a chair, bindings, and a pair of woman’s underwear…well, that’s disturbing.
So, to suggest that you see it or not? Well, I’ll say this. If you don’t want to get involved in something fairly depressing, and even the suggestion of violence bothers you, well, don’t start it. Because if you do start watching this series, you’re mostly likely going to be unable to stop until you watch the whole thing. The acting in it is just THAT GOOD. I’ve actually not seen a lot of British TV with Sarah Lancashire, the lead, in it, but she is nothing short of fantastic to watch. You can’t actually look away from her. (See that face, above. At one point she cries, that deep, racking non-cry that shows a person really in pain, and I’ve never seen anything like it.) And one of the villains of the piece, James Norton? James Norton gives such a chilling and seemingly easy portrayal of a right nasty little bastard that you won’t be able to look away from him either, even though you’ll really, REALLY want to. A scene featuring him in the fourth episode so chillingly combines evil behavior with tenderness and is so unbelievably creepy that I may never be able to look at James Norton again, which is a shame, because he also stars as the vicar/crime-solver in the mystery series Grantchester, which is also very good.
So. Should you watch it? I think, yes. By all means stop if it is not your cuppa, but I do think there’s some closure to be had if you make it all the way to episode six in the first series. (I’ve not seen the second series yet, even though it has aired completely and a third series is already on tap, but I hear it is excellent.**) Anyone else seen this already? What’s your take?
*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.
**Love this line from this review: “Catherine Cawood is too tired for your bullshit.”