The locale of this BBC drama is a rural town in the very green belt of West Yorkshire. Aside from its countryside, this town is rather bleak. Working class, rainy, and only “happy” due to a runaway drug problem, it’s undoubtedly seen better days.
At the heart of this six part series is Police Sgt. Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) who tells in the opening sequence, “I’m Catherine. I’m 47. I’m divorced. I live with me sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me.” As we will soon learn, her daughter suicided after being raped by a local.
Raising her primary-school grandson who has learning difficulties, Catherine clearly has her hands full. But she is also a dedicated worker, answering the call of duty in her town. In defending the law she is a no-fuss cop, drawing upon her years of experience to resolve cases with tough-love or even a swift thwack with her truncheon if scenes turn violent.
Another local is the terribly meek accountant Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton) who feels undervalued at his company and gets no joy when he asks his boss Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan) for a raise to cover his daughter’s school fees. So frustrated with his circumstance, Kevin foolishly takes the opportunity to ask a local gang to kidnap his boss’ daughter for a ransom fee. But the gang seize the moment to take control of the crime, threatening to cut Kevin’s share to a fraction of his target.
The two worlds of Kevin and Catherine meet when he stupidly has a change of heart and begins to report the looming crime to her. The plan begins to unravel from there…
Written by Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax), Happy Valley, deftly juggles its domestic, character drama with its plot-driven kidnapping heist and we’re all the richer for it. What appears to be little more than a rural cop drama with pedestrian cases takes its audience through a bigger case with twists and turns. Is it a social drama with action, or the reverse? Never mind, it works on both fronts.
Sarah Lancashire is completely convincing as both mother and cop, with a grounded performance that forms a strong basis for this series. While her best scenes revolve around her domestic kitchen-sink drama, it’s clear this would probably be half the vehicle with another actress in the role.
Steve Pemberton, best recognised for Psychoville and The League of Gentlemen, is spot on as the insipid accountant in way over his head. Downton Abbey fans will barely recognise Siobhan Finneran -aka Mrs. O’Brien- as Catherine’s heroin-recovering sister, Clare Cartwright.
The UK churns out more than its share of cop dramas, but while Happy Valley may not match the whodunnit brilliance of Broadchurch, this is one of the strongest Friday night diversions in a long time.
Happy Valley airs 8:30pm Fridays on ABC.