Best TV of 2014: No 1 – Happy Valley

Time now for one of those “Best TV of…” things. Except that instead of doing it ourselves – because, in the spirit of everybody’s favorite Jor-El, Marlon Brando, we aren’t into the competition thing and don’t believe it’s right to pit shows against show – we’re going to let one of the world’s best news sites do it for us. Take it away, “The Guardian.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: “The Guardian” is a UK newspaper, so you may not know the shows being discussed. Yeah, we did this deliberately, so we could have our ethics and obey LB’s “I want a best of!” instruction too. Sneaky SOBs, ain’t we?

Happy Valleyby Mark Lawson

If, in January of this year [2014], you had surveyed viewers of British television for their top 10 irritations, a strong contender for the No 1 spot would have been the proliferation of police fiction in the schedules. But Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley – closely followed by Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty – soon proved that the form you choose to work in is less important than the form the workers are in.

The triumph of Happy Valley was even more surprising because it began depressingly conventionally, in a small Yorkshire town with a police sergeant – who seemed to be a single mother – juggling her domestic life with a minor incident involving a drunk. There was a suspicion at this early stage that Wainwright was revisiting issues that she had already dealt with in more complexity in her ITV series Scott & Bailey.

Quickly, though, plot and tone began to go somewhere else entirely, with what seemed to be a comic subplot – an employee taking revenge on his budget-cutting boss by kidnapping his daughter – developing into a narrative in which terrible violence, for both victims and investigators, was a constant probability. The cop with a kid turned out to be, far more originally for the genre, a single grandmother, bringing up the child of her daughter, whose death was caused by a man who was now back in town and involved in the kidnap plot. At the end, a second hostage-taking echoed the first.

It is common at TV festivals for producer and writers to assert that, if Dickens and Shakespeare were alive today, they would be writing peak-time drama. But it seems to me that Happy Valley is the BBC1 six-parter that Henrik Ibsen, father of social and psychological dramatic realism in plays such as Ghosts and A Doll’s House, would have created were he around.

In some of the most psychologically perceptive writing and acting (from Sarah Lancashire’s Catherine) that TV has ever seen, Happy Valley progressively reveals deep and bleeding layers of grief, deceit and guilt within three generations of the Cawood family. The concept of “backstory” in fiction often refers merely to character flavouring such as relationship and employment histories, but, in Happy Valley, enough crucial events have happened before the opening episode to fill another six parts.

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