If you've ever watched any cop shows on Netflix, you've no doubt had a recommendation for their original series Happy Valley pop up somewhere on your screen as you plumb the depths of the streaming service for some goddamn thing to watch on a Tuesday night. I'm here to tell you that you should go ahead and watch this show, if only to marvel at its lead character.
The center of this rather bleak universe is a 47-year-old police sergeant named Catherine Cawood, played by Sarah Lancashire. Cawood works a beat in England's glum and rural Yorkshire Valley, a place where the sun never seems to emerge from behind the clouds long enough to un-redden the faces of the poor saps who live there, a good chunk of whom evidently go through their sad lives depressed, on drugs, or both.
The bone-deep shittiness of the valley is evident in the circumstances of Cawood's life. She's divorced, lives with her recovering-heroin-addict sister, and is raising her nine-year-old grandson, whose mother (and Cawood's daughter) isn't around because she hanged herself right after the kid was born. And oh, by the way, the kid is the spawn of the daughter's rapist, hence the suicide; he just finished up a bid for drug possession and has moved back into town. This town sucks, and it sucks to be her especially.
It's not long before Cawood finds herself involved in a Fargo-esque kidnapping plot that drives the show along at an increasingly foreboding pace. Except that she isn't immediately at the center of the drama—it's not until the fourth episode of the six-episode season (available in full now) that she even becomes aware of that kidnapping. Instead, she spends most of the show just working her beat like any normal cop.
And that's exactly what makes Cawood such an enjoyable and extraordinary character. TV and movies have given us plenty of harried-yet-brilliant detectives, the moody, mercurial savants who stare at constellations of evidence photos pinned to a cork board and will a suspect into existence through the sheer power of their detective-ly brooding. But we never find Cawood holed up in a command center, poring over documents and interrogating witnesses because she's the only woman cut out for a job like this, dammit! Instead, she spends most of the show working at the periphery of the central crime, only stumbling onto the truth through well-done police work.
Maybe it's just because I watch too much Netflix, but I can't help but compare her to my other favorite fictional British cop: John Luther, played by Idris Elba on, uh, Luther. Both are mostly broken people whose own traumas are continually compounded by those of the world around them, but when you strip away the surface indicators that Luther is a man on the brink—tattered wardrobe, constantly furrowed brow, baggy eyes—you're left with someone who is essentially a superhero who catches cinematically evil rapists and murderers over and over again with a Sherlock-ian intellect, and sometimes even beats them to a pulp with his bare hands. As Vulture's Matt Zoller Seitz put it, he's Batman without a costume.
Cawood is a great cop, but she's not a superhero. She doesn't win the fistfights she gets into, and she doesn't solve crimes with dramatic flourishes. Instead, her brilliance shines through in the mundanity of her day-to-day duties. It's there when she quickly and efficiently executes an urgent phone call to the station; it's there when she relays a license plate she just memorized over her radio; it's there when she follows up on seemingly fruitless leads over and over again. If she were an office worker, she'd be the one who never takes longer than 10 minutes to respond to an email and always takes thorough notes during a meeting.
That all this relatively boring copping feels so exciting is a testament to Lancashire's performance. She treats what should be ho-hum scenes with the care and gravitas that other TV cops save for interrogation scenes or the big resolution. She can convince you that she is the best cop you've ever seen on TV simply by making a phone call.
Happy Valley has a lot of things that we've already seen before—kidnappings-gone-wrong, handsome psychopaths, a cop with a tough family life—but Cawood makes it stand out. She's a welcome reprieve from the Rust Cohles, Sherlocks, and Luthers of the world—a cop who doesn't need monologues or costuming or an uncrackable case in order to demonstrate what a great cop she is. When she's onscreen, she's just a lady doing her job, and you can't take your eyes off her.
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