Happy Valley was released in August as a “Netflix Original,” but you likely didn’t notice. Unlike Netflix’s other babies, House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, there really wasn’t much promotion for it. That’s because it’s technically not a Netflix original show — they just got North American distribution rights, but it originally premiered on BBC1 back in April.
All of this is just to say that if you’ve been avoiding it due to lack of hype, avoid no more.
Happy Valley follows in the TV detective footsteps of shows like Broadchurch or Fargo in that it focuses its entire run on solving a single crime (or catching a single criminal). As a result, the 6-episode stretch spends much more time exploring the lives of the victims, perpetrators and investigators.
There certainly is the “shades of grey” angle that modern crime dramas love so much, where the cops aren’t entirely blameless and the criminals aren’t soulless thugs. But they don’t work too hard to make you feel bad for rapists and murderers, and they don’t try to make the lead detective (Catherine Cawood, played by the fantastic Sarah Lancashire) into some kind of dark, boozy anti-hero. Cawood certainly has some family-related “demons,” engages in some adultery and yells are various family members and co-workers, but it doesn’t feel quite as hackneyed or overplayed as David Tennant’s artfully be-stubbled Alec Hardy, for example.
Where Tennant’s Hardy reached cartoon levels of unkemptness with a constantly askew tie, rumpled clothes, permastubble and an expression like he was trying to keep his teeth from falling out of his mouth, Cawood’s visible emotional exhaustion feels honest and well-earned. Possibly aided by the fact that Lancashire has considerable range as an actress and was given a character whose back story isn’t kept from the audience like a trite secret to be revealed somewhere near the finale.
But I didn’t come here just to trash Broadchurch.
Instead, I feel like this show is the perfect answer for anybody who felt like Broadchurch was too cold and calculated and Fargo was too in love with its cuteness. In spite of the name, Happy Valley isn’t about a quiet, small town rocked by tragedy, nor does it peek into the seemingly cookie-cutter windows of suburban life to reveal — shock of shocks — that people who live outside of a city might have layers.
This is a more honest, more realistic story about a town where people things have gotten a little bit worse and people feel a little more desperate and worn-down than they did before. There are no big, flashy characters and there are no shocking reveals. It lets you watch everything unravel as it happens, as people start backing themselves further and further up against a wall. None of the performances are showy, and none of the crimes are made to feel “fun” or “inventive.” It’s all small, hard, petty stuff. And the moments of violence are played to a point of realism that makes them much harder to watch than a big, gory, glitzy massacre.
I should mention that you won’t get this impression from the first two episodes. In fact, the first third of the show so strongly resembles the set-up for the movie version of Fargo that I was starting to wonder how they didn’t get sued. But whether or not that was intentional, you quickly forget your concerns as you get deeper into the characters.
There’s some sloppy writing here and there with a few characters explaining their motivations and back story with a little too much clarity for the sake of the audience, but ultimately what creator and writer Sally Wainwright has done with her small cast quickly becomes devastating and absorbing. Not without its faults, I still say with confidence that Happy Valley is a gloomy but engaging drama for detective fans who’ve grown bored of the same old fare.