ENTERTAINMENT
09/11/2014 05:11 pm ET Updated Sep 12, 2014

'Happy Valley' On Netflix Supplies Suspense, Intelligence And A Fascinating Female Cop

Netflix

The first excellent thing about "Happy Valley" is how efficient it is.

Within a few minutes of meeting police officer Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), we get the basic outlines of her life. In the course of talking down a jittery drunk who's turned suicidal at a local playground, Cawood explains that her life isn't so great either; she's single, raising her grandkid, lives with her ex-junkie sister and so on. She reels all this off without bitterness or regret; Catherine's not an oversharer, she's just trying to give the guy some perspective. As played by the phenomenal Lancashire, Catherine is brisk, no-nonsense and immediately winning.

With deft strokes, creator Sally Wainwright quickly adds to her portrait of Catherine: She's a pretty good boss, her home life is complicated but not without its rewards, and the big and small frustrations of her job don't stop her from being good at it. Like the cops on "The Wire," decisions made above Catherine's head baffle her; they're usually opaque, short-sighted or far too influenced by political considerations.

But she keeps going, because it's just in her nature (she's a welcome addition to the TV sub-category dubbed British Women Getting It Done). Catherine and "Happy Valley," a U.K. import that recently arrived on Netflix, both possess sturdy engines, and the six-part drama pulls you ever more deeply into her life and the seedy underside of her community. Before you know it, Sarah's past collides with awful events transpiring around the corner from her modest home, and by the fourth episode of the show, I was on the edge of my seat.

Suspense is a beautiful thing, but when it's married to terrific character development and finely etched moral dilemmas, it makes this kind of police story even more powerful. Catherine's fascinating in her own right, but so are the bigger questions asked by this concise, condensed tale.

Like so many excellent crime-oriented dramas of late -- "Top of the Lake," "Rectify," "The Bletchley Circle," "Banshee," "Fargo," "Broadchurch," "True Detective," "The Bridge" and "The Fall" -- "Happy Valley" is very rooted in a very particular time and place. Catherine's valley is a half-lush, half-urban tangle of suburbs and exurbs in the north of England; a typical shot includes tower blocks and rolling hills. It's not unusual to see farming equipment and Wellingtons, but drugs are everywhere too. The "happiness" of the valley is often illegally obtained.

Crime dramas about basically noble teams catching the bad guys by the end of the hour will never go out of style; the reassuringly solid thunk-thunk of a "Law & Order" and the glossy lab equipment of "CSI" and its clones help us deal with the subconscious panic modern life inspires. But we know that kind of tidy narrative is a con, and more existentially nervous crime dramas have proliferated of late, which is only appropriate, given the nervous-making times we live in.

These days, you can find a lot of solid TV shows and well-written novels about frustrated cops and sleuths who hail from all over the globe. Salon's Laura Miller notes that the best characters in the latest wave of crime novels are different from the noir-ish solo acts you often find in tough-guy fiction. "The battlefields they depict," Miller writes, "are not the sleazy nightclubs, back alleys, diners and shabby offices of the archetypal P.I. novel, but a far more intimate and treacherous terrain: family, marriage, friendship."

These books and many of the best crime-oriented TV shows are about how communities respond to evil, and they're about the witnesses -- many of them women -- who can't abide the weakness and hypocrisy of those inadequate responses. Like the terrific "Happy Valley," these stories are psychologically intense and morally complex, and their cumulative power comes from both plot twists and emotional twists of the knife, if you will.

Equally obsessed with geography and hierarchies, most of these shows, from "The Bletchley Circle" to "The Bridge," use the cloak of suspense to ask challenging questions: How much evil has sunk into the roots of this place? How much complicity do those in power have when it comes to the exploitation and casual ruin of people lower on the food chain? And how can those who struggle with anger, pain and a desire for revenge rid their communities of the worst kinds of injustice? Just how far can they go before they make things worse?

These TV shows are the cousins of the smart page-turners by Kate Atkinson, Tana French, Denise Mina and Laura Lippman because they also use the trappings of law, "order" and society's rules to examine the shaggiest and messiest aspects of human nature with rigor, perspective and compassion. I could easily see Catherine taking a job with French's Dublin Murder Squad, the subject of one of the most fascinating book franchises around. As I've noted before, on TV, these kinds of stories play around with genre conventions, but in pursuit of subversive ideas and strangely optimistic ideas about community and empathy. As Miller says of two of the books she mentions, "the corrective to wickedness in both novels is not a bruised, melancholy individualism, but connection, loyalty, trust."

In "Happy Valley," as is the case with "Top of the Lake" and "Rectify," the past is always present: It'd be a crime to give too much of the story away, but suffice to say that Catherine has a very difficult personal history that becomes enmeshed in a present-day kidnapping. It wouldn't be going to far to say that Catherine is literally living with the consequences of a terrible act, and "Happy Valley" treats that situation with the complexity it deserves without ever stumbling into self-importance or cliche.

It's also worth noting that "Happy Valley" shows the consequences of violence against women (and men) without ever stylizing or fetishizing these acts, as too many crime dramas do. (What could be worse than insipidly cynical drama "The Following" in that regard? The new Kevin Williamson drama "Stalker," which I will not write about because RAGE SPIRALS).

As Batya Ungar-Sargon writes in the Daily Beast, part of the goal of "Happy Valley" is "decoupling the violence against women from the suspense that keeps us watching, without sacrificing the gripping absorption offered by the best crime dramas." You might almost say that "Happy Valley" consistently does for violence against women what "Masters of Sex" consistently does for depictions of female sexuality on premium cable: The women on these shows, just like the men, are subjects, not objects. (Note: It may be best to read the Daily Beast piece, which discusses plot points, after you've seen "Happy Valley.")

Lancashire had a long, varied career in the U.K., but this is my first extensive exposure to her (I hear good things about another project from Lancashire and Wainwright, PBS' "Last Tango in Halifax"). She is nothing less than a revelation and a continual wonder. The word that keeps coming to mind when I think of Lancashire's performance is "transparent"; there are no tricks or actorly mannerisms on display in "Happy Valley."

Catherine's not grand or imperious, but her blue eyes seem to stare right into people's souls, and they offer a window into hers as well. A deep well of almost unreasonable stubbornness is all that keeps her going some days, and the show doesn't shy away from depicting how hard it can be for her to get through the daily grind of being a mother, a grandmother, a sister, a breadwinner and a tenacious cop. One of "Happy Valley's" quiet themes is the idea that choosing to be a good person every day can be a monumental and completely unrecognized challenge (one that some fail, as evidenced by the "Happy Valley's" version of Walter White, who is merely a supporting character here). But this is not a dour show; like any self-respecting U.K. drama, it's shot through with mordant wit and unexpected acts of kindness. (A general note: The Northern accents on the show can occasionally be tough to decipher, but that wasn't a dealbreaker for me.)

The cast around Lancashire is uniformly terrific, but that's almost always the case with U.K. dramas; I am convinced terrific character actors do actually grow on trees over there (keep your eyes peeled for a "Downton Abbey" alum). But Lancashire and Catherine are the reasons to watch.

To call "Happy Valley" a miniature version of a season of "The Wire" isn't quite right, because that comparison implies smallness. Both shows rigorously explore a refusal to accept powerlessness in the face of indifferent amorality; both shows feel very much of a place and work hard to give almost every person in the narrative the dignity of nuance.

Catherine's "patch" in "Happy Valley" may be more limited than the big chunks of Baltimore covered by Bunk and McNulty, but morally and emotionally, this fantastic drama goes deep. As I said, it's nothing if not efficient: In only six episodes, "Happy Valley" accomplishes more than some dramas do in their whole runs.

"Happy Valley" is available on Netflix.

Ryan McGee and I discussed "You're the Worst," "Outlander," "The Knick" and "Happy Valley" in the latest Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below.

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