Cara Winter: The Anglo Files 11: HAPPY VALLEY


by Cara Winter

“I’m Catherine, by the way.  I’m forty-seven, I’m divorced, I live with my sister who’s a recovering heroin addict.  I have two grown-up children; one dead, and one who doesn’t speak to me.”

So begins Happy Valley, a BBC drama created by the fiercely talented Sally Wainwright (Season One available on Netflix).

The heart and soul of this show is Sergeant Catherine Cawood, who’s no ordinary woman; she’s adept with a truncheon, she chases (and oft tackles) bad guys, and is oddly proud of getting kicked in the face.  Oh, and the little boy she’s raising calls her “Granny”. Because she is one.

Happy Valley is a beautiful and stunning drama, starring Sarah Lancashire as Catherine, who simultaneously battles the drug-riddled streets of her small Yorkshire town, and her own demons.  Yes, this is a “cop show”, or it would be if one were overly concerned with categories.  But it is the most unique cop show I’ve ever seen, and surpasses all (yes, ALL) of it’s American brethern, by leaps and bounds.  IT IS A MUST-SEE.

My beef with most American cop dramas today, is that the horror of certain acts is glossed over, lost in the shuffle of smooth talk and pressed pants suits, and too-pretty detectives.  No one even registered shock when they found my friend Gia Mora shot to death on an episode of Castle, recently.  (Holla!  You were a pretty, pretty corpse.)   To me, it seems the creators of these types of shows are concerned with solving the mystery for the viewer in 48 minutes, they forget the very human “drama” altogether.

Not so, with Happy Valley.  And here’s why:

1. By firmly, openly, and graphically addressing the violence before them (as one would in real life), events take a natural and emotional toll on the characters – yes, even the cops who are trying to stop it.

2. By putting Catherine at the center of both the current crime, and a past crime (the rape of her daughter, for which her rapist was never punished), everything becomes intensely personalized for her.  Almost everything at work reminds her of what she’s lost at home, and it makes her even more determined to see justice done.

3. One, and only one, major crime is at the center of the six episode arc.  You’d think this might make it too slow, but au contraire —  with plenty of moving parts and twisty turns, Wainwright keeps us on the edge of our seats.   There is little or no “fix you a cuppa tea?”, unless it is accompanied by backyard cigarette and a talking-to from Catherine’s concerned sister Clare, played with grace and soul by Siobhan Finneran (who was also Downton Abbey’s “O’Brien” — but virtually unrecognizable as such, here).

Precisely because of the long arc, meaningful events (both past and present) have time to “land”, main characters’ home lives can be expanded upon, delved into, deepening how much we care about crimes, both past and present. No sooner are we introduced to Catherine, her challenging job, her teetering home life, and her troubled past, we are thrust into a young woman’s kidnapping, a plot instigated by an ordinary, work-a-day accountant Kevin Weatherill (played with frightening realism by Steve Pemberton).

While some have complained that the accents are too thick, I never found that to be true.  Even if you have trouble with the brogue, that is no excuse!   Just enable the subtitles, renew your Netflix subscription, and strap in.  For while Happy Valley is disturbing, no doubt about it…  it is also the best TV drama since Breaking Bad.  And I can’t wait to see Season 2.

Cara Winter is a Contributing Editor to TVWriter™. You can learn more about her HERE.

Author: Cara Winter

Born & raised in Kalamazoo, MI (yes, there really is a Kalamazoo). Living, writing & raising a son in Chicago, IL. BFA in Acting from New York University / Tisch School of the Arts. Professional stage actress for 20 years; member, Actor's Equity Association Writing for the stage since 2000.