Stand back, people. Sit down if you like. Brace yourselves. Diminishing remarks, possibly even derogatory, are aimed at British TV in this epistle.
Recently, when the BBC’s Sherlock won seven Emmys – more than Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad – reaction over yonder got a bit giddy. “Sherlock, Downton Abbey: What the U.S. can learn from our TV exports” was the headline of a fatuous piece in The Guardian. Apparently, what the U.S. can learn is that British actors are versatile and that, often, in Britain a single writer guides a TV drama.
Yes, well. Sherlock, as great as it is, has exactly three episodes a season. Three. And the principle of the single creative force of one writer has been applied in U.S. cable series for years. Settle down, over yonder.
Happy Valley, the most recent much-acclaimed Brit drama, arrived here recently on Netflix and makes an interesting case of what’s good, bad and mediocre about Brit drama now.
The series, a six-parter written by Sally Wainwright, is an arena for sublime acting by Sarah Lancashire, playing its lead character, the indomitable police sergeant Catherine Cawood. She’s in charge in a bleak but pretty town in West Yorkshire and, as we know in minutes, she’s 47, divorced, has one child dead, another not talking to her, and lives with her recovering heroin-addict sister and her orphaned grandson. It’s good to see a middle-aged, all-too-human woman police officer in a central role.
But as Happy Valley unfolds, limitations arise. It’s too neatly plotted. Catherine’s daughter committed suicide after being raped and giving birth to the child the rapist fathered. The rapist, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), has just been released from jail. Meanwhile, mild-mannered accountant Kevin (Steve Pemberton) asks his boss for a raise to fund a daughter accepted into private school, and he’s rejected. Furious, and with a lifetime of anger coming to the surface, Kevin instigates the kidnapping of his boss’s daughter. The rapist is, of course, a key player in this plot and plan, which goes horribly awry. The neatness of the interconnections is too blithe.
It also becomes clear that, for all the grit in the portrait of a troubled, seething place, Happy Valley owes a lot to Fargo – the movie. The stoic female cop, the crazy lust for crime-induced sudden wealth, the thuggery that simmers under the affable rural exterior. There is also a hint of Breaking Bad’s portrait of a mild man unleashing his rage in the character of Kevin. Except that, at six episodes and with a lot of car chases and side trips to establish social relevancy (Catherine’s ex is a newspaper reporter about to lose his job as his paper goes online-only), the Kevin character becomes faintly ludicrous.
There is also a layer of literary references. Alert English-lit scholars watching will know that the graveyard Catherine visits to honour her daughter, the suicide victim, is in Hebden Bridge, which also contains the grave of Sylvia Plath. And during the kidnap scene, the victim’s car stereo is playing Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights. In fact, Bush is singing “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy” at the key moment, deliberately linking the story to Emily Bronte’s great novel of doomed love set in the very same location.
It’s an interesting flourish, this, in a drama that is very much about the treatment of women by men. But it sits awkwardly.
There is plenty to enjoy and admire in Happy Valley. It’s entertaining, creepy and fast-paced, and Sarah Lancashire is formidable. And yet it feels bogus in the context of the best of U.S. cable dramas. It doesn’t grow organically and the characters, save for the central female cop, are not fully fleshed out. The villain is an embodiment of something, not a character. The slow, nuanced reveal that characterizes the best of long-form TV drama just isn’t there.
If you watch Happy Valley on Netflix, its algorithms will probably direct you to Southcliffe, which also debuted here on Netflix recently. A four-part TV miniseries that also aired in Britain to acclaim, it was screened as a “Special Presentation” at the Toronto International Film Festival last year. That happened because it is ostentatiously cinematic and the director is Canadian-born Sean Durkin.
Lavishly bleak, cryptic and disjointed in its structure, Southcliffe is about a fictional mass murder in a dozy English backwater town, called Southcliffe. At its centre are the gunman and the big-shot TV reporter who covers the massacre. There is a lot thrown into it – post-traumatic stress, class prejudice, male rage and the fear of aging. It’s actually a more substantial achievement than Happy Valley. But it, too, seems limited in scope and depth.
What limits both Happy Valley and Southcliffe are the matters of time and space. They are short series, too short to allow for the range and emotional expanse of what U.S. cable can offer. It’s getting better, Brit TV drama, but some Emmy wins for Sherlock don’t make for a revolution.