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Sometimes even critics need external motivation for giving a series a second chance. With Netflix dropping season two of the British police series Happy Valley on Wednesday, this is the story of that second chance.
I found it difficult to get into the first couple of episodes of the first season of Happy Valley when it first arrived — partly because I didn’t think it was doing anything original and also because, as someone who loves and mostly understands a good accent, there were stretches where I had no idea what people were saying to each other; it was like listening to a radio going in and out. After two episodes of not being impressed, I was out.
AIR DATE Mar 16, 2016
But as the second season approached, there had been enough acclaim from critics I like to maybe re-evaluate the series — plus I had really been impressed by the performance of series star Sarah Lancashire in the little I’d seen. On top of that, creator, writer and director Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax, Scott & Bailey) has an impressive résumé and the kind of ambition I root for. So a revisiting seemed in order.
I got a running start and dove into season one, determined not to be held back by previous assumptions. Let’s start with this: Happy Valley should really be called Depressing Valley, since there’s not a lot of happiness in the series nor much of a thrill in the lives going on in Calder Valley, West Yorkshire, where the series is set.
Beautiful bleakness. That’s what it is.
If nothing else, Happy Valley has forever ruined my love of bucolic rural England by giving it the Blue Velvet treatment.
Luckily, there is indeed much else to like about this dark series, beginning with the glorious performance of Lancashire (Last Tango In Halifax) as police sergeant Catherine Cawood, followed by Siobhan Finneran (Downton Abbey) as Catherine’s recovering alcoholic sister, Clare.
In fact, it’s difficult to find a bad performance in the two seasons of Happy Valley, as the British acting pool remains one of the most distinguished anywhere. You’ll see a lot of familiar faces in both seasons of Happy Valley (each is a mere six episodes) and they won’t disappoint.
As you’ve probably sussed out by now, surviving Happy Valley is not always easy. In season one, viewers were introduced to the Catherine Cawood character as a fierce, no-nonsense sergeant wrangling troublemakers in the don’t-be-fooled-by-the-views West Yorkshire area as she deals with horrific personal problems. Her daughter was raped and impregnated by a vicious sociopath (who Catherine was unable to pin the crime on) and killed herself because of the ordeal. Catherine’s choice to raise the baby tears apart her marriage and she’s living with her sister, trying to do good in a bad world.
And that’s our introduction to her. Wainwright does not mess about with niceties.
Season one revolves around Catherine’s daughter’s killer, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton of War & Peace, Grantchester), popping back up in Calder Valley, a botched kidnap-for-ransom case and a twist or two that, once you’ve become familiar with Wainwright’s brand of unflashy, grime-crime, sink your spirits a bit further until the finale.
While that may not sound like a grand night (or several nights) out, it doesn’t take long for Lancashire’s incredible performance and Wainwright’s characters to hook you, with the beautiful and haunting West Yorkshire countryside lending the proceedings a more original, emotional reverberation than I had originally thought.
In short — stick with it.
To truly get enraptured by season two (and a third has already been greenlighted), it’s essential to watch season one. Because what sets and forms in Happy Valley is a sense of history, of location, of neighborhoods and people and predicaments — of a life of hardship and endurance in a stunningly beautiful locale. And everybody seems to be in pain, lacking work, options, sometimes hope; drink and drugs are the salve.
Lancashire is the hook here; Catherine’s stoicism in trying to be a good cop and a mother to her grandson and a sister to Clare is always being tested — and Lancashire’s ability to make viewers feel all the conflicting emotions is a thing of real beauty. Tight close-ups (by directors Wainwright and Neasa Hardiman) that populate so much of season two go a long way toward binding the audience to Catherine. And since part of the hook of season two is that the world won’t let Catherine have a break from Royce (his mother is killed and his disturbed girlfriend, played by Shirley Henderson, comes to town), we’re going to see a lot of Lancashire’s face.
Part of what made season one of Happy Valley work is the dichotomy of the location and the horrific deeds of the people in and around the rural towns. Americans are so used to seeing crime take place in major cities that watching it unfold somewhere that looks like a fabulous vacation to the green valleys of England is somewhat shocking.
Let’s be clear — Wainwright knows how to write about and film violence and make it as unglamorous as it deserves to be. By the time you get to season two, some of that newness (and awfulness) is reduced, but by no means absent. I found this second season to be much more interesting and certainly more welcoming (again, part of that is season one having done all the damage to your psyche). Knowing the characters better allows Wainwright to give them new challenges, deepens our ability to embrace them and feel for them and makes the repercussions of what happens to everyone more powerful.
Revisiting the series and overcoming the early obstacles was, indeed, rewarding. Not every plot twist is original or even believable, but the second season only solidifies how impressive the whole Happy Valley world is.
Cast: Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran
Created, written and directed by: Sally Wainwright
Premieres: Wednesday, March 16 (Netflix)
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