Is the title ironic? Because many unhappy things happen in “Happy Valley.” And many unhappy people live in “Happy Valley.” Even the economy is depressed.
Keeping the peace is police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), who lets pass few opportunities to remind those in need of reminding—be it juvenile delinquent, ex-husband, or sister—just how unhappy she is. You can’t blame her, given her Tragic Backstory. She’s made Sacrifices. She’s got Reasons to Be Angry. But she’s also Very Good at Her Job.
Meanwhile, across town, pinch-faced accountant Kevin (Steve Pemberton)—who, despite having every reason to be happy—is so needled by a sense of inferiority and entitlement that he does A Very Stupid Thing. It soon spirals out of his hands, out of everyone’s hands, and delivers a shit storm to Sgt. Catherine’s door.
Lancashire’s the draw here. She plays Catherine with the slack face and “Are you kidding me?” eyes of someone’s who seen too much and heard it all: namely a mother of teenage children. In fact, most of the criminals in town seem to be wayward teens. What with the booze and the drugs and the hijinks, they’re practically bleating for the intervention of a mother. So Catherine arrives, maybe rolls her eyes a few times, and generally Handles It. But as quick as she is to deploy her nightstick (much viewer pleasure derives from the deployment of her nightstick), she’s just as quick with a tender word and a hug. Like all good mothers, she soothes and she admonishes. She’s not so much policing this town as she’s trying to raise it right.
Unfortunately, the plot’s been lifted beat for beat from a certain snow-soaked Coen Brothers masterpiece. It’s been mined for thrills and incidents but stripped of poetry. When the crime plot goes askew, the show shifts to domestic drama, which all comes to a head at a Disastrous Birthday Party. Things are said. And feelings, like the 1989 album by Neneh Cherry, are raw like sushi.
One doesn’t mind the hoary plot devices because it’s all in service of Letting Sarah Lancashire Tear Shit Up. Her facility with emotion is astonishing. There’s never less than three things, often conflicting, playing across her face. And despite the satisfying histrionics, much of it is economical, trembling work. She’s transfixing to watch.
In the end, the show gives some sage motherly advice about how to live a good life: Forgive. Love. Persist. Also, don’t be greedy. Don’t lie. And for God’s sake, don’t humiliate your accountant.
Maybe it’s a treatise on happiness, after all.