I didn’t think I could possibly get more into watching movies and TV, until I met Happy Valley. With 2016 feeling like the setup to a post-apocalyptic sci-fi film, escapism is even more important than ever. Luckily, 2016 is also the era of Peak TV, and Happy Valley is one of the shows that managed to stand out in the crowd. So in case you missed it while focusing on any number of national and global tragedies, let me introduce you to the one of the most underrated shows of 2016.
With streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime becoming such major players in the creative space, there’s been an influx of smart, funny, challenging works created by and starring women. There’s even a “Shows Featuring a Strong Female Lead” category on Netflix, though they have yet to add a category for my very favorite genre: Lady Detective (*with an accent) Gets Shit Done (see also: The Fall, Broadchurch, Top of the Lake, Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries).
Netflix’s Happy Valley, created by Sally Wainwright, doesn’t just fit this mold, it exceeds it. It is badass. It is suspenseful. It is excellent.
The first season of Happy Valley hit Netflix in the U.S. in 2015, but I neglected to check it out until season two was added earlier this year and instead binged all 12 episodes in about a week. For mental health reasons, I can’t necessarily say I recommend the binge-watch method for a show about a grieving detective trying to solve a kidnapping case in a dreary Yorkshire town, but I also can’t say I regret it.
The detective at the heart of the show is Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire). At work, she faces the Sisyphean task of fighting crime in a working-class town where the everyday effects of unemployment and drug and alcohol abuse are palpable. At home, she is raising her young grandson after losing her daughter, is estranged from her ex-husband and adult son, and is housing her recovering alcoholic sister. And if that wasn’t enough, a criminal* with ties to her daughter’s death has just been released from prison.
*James Norton plays Tommy Lee Royce, who is so genuinely unsettling to me that I have trouble even calling him a Villain Hottie, despite his dashing good looks. This is addressed in a brilliant, meta way in season two.
Despite all this, Catherine, and thus Happy Valley as a whole, maintains a healthy, if typically British and dry sense of humor. In the face of all her hardships, she still exudes a sense of warmth so natural and strong that we always sense it just beneath her tough exterior.
Catherine is unapologetically excellent at her job, loved and respected by her coworkers. She’s not some magical cipher of a working woman who has it all, and somehow mysteriously arrived at the top of her field. We see her hard work, the unglamorous side of being a policewoman, and how much she loves it anyway.
We also see what a mess her home life is, in a way that feels familiar and honest and fleshed-out, and refreshingly unlike a mere quirk assigned to our heroine to give her a semblance of dimension. At home, like at work, Catherine is faced with situations where the right thing to do isn’t always clear. She just tries her best to navigate through one moral dilemma after another that leaves viewers wondering what we would do in her shoes.
In season one, Catherine’s work life and home life begin to affect each other in ways that are best left unspoiled here. I will just say that it’s smart, thrilling, and frequently surprising. And honestly, as good as it is, the plot of the show is almost irrelevant, anyway. It’s Catherine’s character that immediately pulls you into the world, and is so magnetic that once you’re there you won’t be able to stop watching.
Also, it’s worth noting if you haven’t figured it out by now, Happy Valley is a wonderfully feminist show. Not in a Mary-Sue, Girl Squad, performative hashtag-feminism way, but in myriad ways that signal to us that feminism is inherent in the bones of the show. In both seasons, the antagonists are mediocre white men. They’re not mustache-twirling, cartoonishly villainous men. They’re just average people who subtly exemplify the banality of evil, and the way that male privilege warps into toxic misogyny.
Catherine has a healthy relationship with her sister, and with her female colleagues at work. She is not afraid to call bullshit on any of the men in her life, and is passionate about listening to and protecting the victims she encounters in the course of her job. The show treats violence against women with the gravity it deserves, but is never gratuitous. All of these things are so refreshing to see, it makes tuning back into standard male-driven network TV offerings depressing by comparison.
The great thing about TV-as-escapsim is the variety of places we can go with the click of a remote or a mouse. We can go to Calabasas with the Kardashians, to New Jersey with the Housewives, or to a zombie-ridden Atlanta with Rick Grimes and company. But what makes Happy Valley a great escape, funnily enough, is how real it feels. The world of the show is hard and sad but full of heart, just like ours. But when Catherine Cawood triumphs, we feel like we can, too. So the next time you need an escape, try Yorkshire. Trust me.
Check back tomorrow for a review of another of the most underrated TV shows of 2016.