Monday, October 6, 2014

Streaming "must" -- Sally Wainwright's HAPPY VALLEY offers British television at its best

In these days of long, long maxi-series (Grand Hotel lasted something like 42 episodes), what a surprise and joy to come upon a real mini-series of six hour-long episodes that provide something very much like what sitting down to read a good novel entails. Here are rich characterizations, a driving plot fueled by several smart strands and a roster of real characters, with performances that rise to this very high occasion. HAPPY VALLEY is the name of the series, as well as the town in which it takes place.

The creation of a woman named Sally Wainwright (shown at right), Happy Valley, because it is a kind of police procedural -- the main character is a police sergeant named Catherine Cawood, played in award-winning style by Sarah Lancashire, shown on poster, above, and in the shot below -- you will of course want to take that title with a bushel of irony. The beauty of this series is that so many things in it work both ways.

Yes, Happy Valley is a hotbed of criminal activity, depending on where you are and whom you're with. At the same time, this place seems like it would be a wonderful little community in which to live -- where so many of its people are kind, thoughtful and caring. The final shot at the end of the series in fact, brings this duality home in spades, as we see the same shot we've seen previously -- but now with a greater, deeper understanding of what kind of community this really is, as well as what it could be, if only our police sergeant had her way.

The crime -- a kidnapping -- that takes center stage here derives almost accidentally from a conversation between boss and employee about a raise in wages that would help pay for a child's education. So much of what happens here come from the characters' lack of understanding that actions always have consequences -- now or later, intended or unintended -- and so must be better thought out prior to taking that action.

Over and over we see come home to roost results that might have been so easily avoided. All this gives the series real weight, yet it moves quickly and surely toward its outcome(s). Another theme of the series is how power in high places corrupts -- finally tampering with the ability of the lower-level police force to do its job. The series handles this theme beautifully -- allowing us to see only shards of the corrupting power yet enough to understand and feel how it is helping to destroy the community.

A series like this one is so much better than the recent BBC endeavor Broadchurch (now running here in the USA in its remake format of Gracepoint) because its characters are much more real, the plotting is tighter, and the the writing is not crammed full of characters and events too quirky for their own (and the series') good. Ms Wainwright probes depths in Happy Valley -- of event and character -- unheard of in Broadchurch, which relied to often on cliche and shorthand to develop its people and plot.

You'll remember the characters of Happy Valley, good ones and bad, for a long time, I think  And as evil and unconscionable is the series' special villain (played exceedingly well by James Norton, above, left, with the also excellent Adam Long), even he manages to move us, surprisingly at times.

But it is finally the work of Ms Lancashire, who allows us to see more deeply into her character as the episodes continue, that cinches the deal. This is superlative acting -- as well as writing and directing -- taking us into the byways of a small community like few other series have managed.

Happy Valley conflates the police procedural with the "family" film, the charming country town with its rancid underbelly, and in the process gives us something very close to the whole picture. You can stream the series, a Netflix exclusive, now. It is absolutely not to be missed.

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