One reason I respect television these days is that, because there are so very many fine shows out there, so many nooks (“The Night Manager”) and crannies (“Rectify”), and more crannies (“Catastrophe”), and still more crannies (“Silicon Valley,” “Love”), you can actually stumble across something new and unexpected. And you can probably watch it wherever, whenever you want, suit yourself.
After seeing the Netflix box for “Happy Valley” for months on my TV screen, and mindlessly clicking by it, I finally jumped in. I’d only seen minor promotion for it, a few reviews. I was captivated right away. It’s strong, gloomy stuff, by the way, with dark story lines and atmosphere — there’s a cop recovering from her daughter’s suicide, the rapist who devastated her life, their destined confrontations, and lots of anti-romantic local British portraiture. As you can imagine, the title is ironic: The show is really set in the struggling rural community of Calder Valley, West Yorkshire.
But there is redemption afoot, too, a flowering weed or two among all the bleak wet cobblestones.
In some ways, “Happy Valley” is a cousin to “The Fall,” another very worthy British drama about the criminal-detective dance. Like the magnetic Gillian Anderson in “The Fall,” or even Helen Mirren in “Prime Suspect,” Sarah Lancashire owns the show — in a different way, with a lot of sloppy tears, but still: Her Sergeant Catherine Cawood is the troubled central perspective, the conflicted crime-solver driven by demons. “Luther,” too, has a similarly uneasy mind at its core, with Idris Elba as the detective drawn into psycho-dynamic crimes that always seem to unfold in wet alleyways.
The twisted cases that roll through Catherine’s life on “Happy Valley” inevitably wind up having personal connections to her, and you have to go with those uncanny twists of fate. Created and written by Sally Wainwright (of “Last Tango in Halifax,” also starring Lancashire), the show is about unfinished personal business that doesn’t just go away. It’s about the past dealing with you because you didn’t fully deal with it. Catherine’s life is dogged by her daughter’s rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), despite it having been eight years since the crime. Her grief is still fresh, and her fury is fresh, too. The renewed cat and mouse struggle between them is fraught, twisted, and emotionally laden.
And Norton is so horrifyingly good as Royce, a man who — the opposite of Catherine — is emotionally dead. He is almost an automaton (“almost” being the operative word, given his occasional explosions of rage). The difference between Norton in “Happy Valley” and as the lead in the more heroic PBS mystery series “Grantchester” is stunning and speaks worlds of his great talent. He plays both sides of the moral fence quite convincingly.
Surrounding the fixated cop and her target, there are many rich supporting roles. Siobhan Finneran plays Catherine’s recovering addict sister, Clare, who does her best to support Catherine and help raise Catherine’s 8-year-old grandson, who was the result of her late daughter’s rape. Old wounds emerge between the sisters, but their bond is tight, and Finneran — she was the ever-scheming and angry-smoking O’Brien on “Downton Abbey” — is remarkably sympathetic. In the second season, another “Downton” alum — Kevin Doyle, who was Mr. Molesley — shows up in a plotline that kept making me think of “Fargo,” as a mild man slips further and further into criminality a little like Martin Freeman’s insurance salesman Lester Nygaard.
Actually, “Fargo” and “Happy Valley” have much in common, as noir-styled pieces where each season small-town crimes go wrong, stupid people get sucked into evil, and blood is spilled and spilled some more. In season one of “Happy Valley” — there are two seasons so far, with a third on the way — Steve Pemberton plays the fool role, as a bitter accountant who initiates a kidnapping plot against his wealthy boss and then sees that plot spiral further and further into botched chaos. For every truly bad villain on “Happy Valley,” there are a few situational villains, those whose latent evil has only just been awakened, who seem to trip down a slippery slope of badness.
“Happy Valley” also serves as a reminder of the virtue of short seasons. There are only six episodes per season, with almost none of the filler that, say, “The Good Wife” writers had to rely on to make 22 episodes a year. And yet even with the shortened length, the drama and the characters on “Happy Valley” are fully fleshed out. They are haunted, and they are haunting.