Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On Netflix: 'Happy Valley' is 2014's Best New Cop Show

Sarah Lancashire as Sgt. Catherine Cawood in the miniseries "Happy Valley".
West Yorkshire Police Sgt. Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) charges onto the screen in just the first three minutes of the entire miniseries with her backstory. She's 47, divorced and has two kids (one dead, and one who doesn't talk to her). She has one grandchild, and her sister, a recovering heroin-addict, lives with her. That's how she introduces herself to a man, and us, who's threatening to light himself on fire at a playground after a break-up with his girlfriend.

Sgt. Catherine Cawood is the tough, yet fragile lead character in "Happy Valley", a BBC One production named after an area of West Yorkshire known for its drug problem. But drugs isn't the focus of this series. Instead, it toes the line of a "Fargo" storyline, with an extortion/kidnapping plot and a likeable female officer at the center. Though, this story doesn't have as much humor peppered into it as the Oscar-winning film.

Catherine is still coping with the death of her daughter, who committed suicide eight years ago right after giving birth to her son Ryan, the result of  what Catherine believes to be a rape committed by a guy named Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton). Recently released from prison, Catherine is keeping an eye out for him to make him pay once again for his actions, and the everlasting effect it left on her.

James Norton as Tommy Lee Royce
In the mean time, after not getting an immediate response when asked for a raise, accountant Kevin (Steve Pemberton) conjures up a plot with Ashley (Joe Armstrong) to have his workers Lewis (Adam Long) and the recently-released Tommy kidnap the daughter of his boss, Nevison (George Costigan). But then after the plan is official, Nevison comes through and agrees to give Kevin the money he asked.

What follows over the course of six, hour-long episodes is the horrendous consequences of the kidnapping that are Fargo-esque: plenty of murders, including that of a cop, uncertainty from the normal bloke whose extortion idea it was in the beginning, and a brutal standoff between the two thugs.

Most importantly, this shows what a cop show should be: active-duty cops tracking a case that can't be solved in an hour.

This is not your typical cop show as seen on "Law & Order" or any of the new shows that have flooded the tube in the past five years. Hell, not even "True Detective" can hold a flame to it. I say this because a lot of these shows are just people standing around in suits talking about cases with little action. "True Detective" was just an overblown, philosophical meditation on cookie-cutter characters.

"Happy Valley" shines because of its star, Sarah Lancashire. It would be unfair to call Catherine a great female cop, because she's a great cop. Period. But to compare her to other female cops as seen on "The Closer", "Law & Order: SVU" and even the great "Prime Suspect" series, those are just women who stand around and talk, doing nothing physical.

Lancashire's character is a real cop, running after bad guys, saving people and putting her life on the line numerous times. Catherine is a tough cookie not sometimes, all the time, even when it means throwing a council person in jail for drugs. She knows what's right is right, and if it's occasionally wrong, well, so be it.

Aside from Lancashire, the miniseries stands on its own through the study of its characters from Catherine to Nevinson and even to Tommy and Lewis, and all of the actors portraying these characters give great performances. Siobhan Finnerman is equally as good as Catherine's sister, even while having a less than grandiose character, she maintains a level-headedness that keeps the story calm and focused.

"Happy Valley" is a perfect mix of action, tension and sadness. Some episodes are quite hard to bare, especially if you know anyone who is a cop and thinking about what they have to go through on a daily basis. You connect with these characters whose stories are so sad, even if at times you don't want to. And hey, it's the first show I've seen that doesn't show a cop dealing with an addiction or seem mentally unstable.

The job is hard, it's wearing, and it takes an actress like Sarah Lancashire to show you some true grit that isn't hokey or full of cheap action stunts and even cheaper relationship subplots.

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