Happy Valley S3,Early Release,Catherine Cawood (SARAH LANCASHIRE),Lookout Point,Matt Squire
Some of my best television discoveries have been through word-of-mouth, and this week’s recommendation is a show that my parents told me about, as they are not only voracious readers of the New York Times (yes, in print), but also avid watchers of shows on BritBox. They read an article about the final season of Happy Valley last year in the New York Times and asked me if I’d heard of it. I said no, but it intrigued me, so I watched the first episode and was instantly hooked. The 18 episodes (three seasons of 6 episodes each) flew by, I just couldn’t get enough.

Happy Valley is a crime drama that shouldn’t be judged by its very misleading title. The series is set in modern Yorkshire, England, in an area nicknamed Happy Valley because of the prevalence of drug use in the region. The center of the series is a policewoman, Sgt. Catherine Cawood, played by the magnificent Sarah Lancashire. Cawood is a bitter, no-nonsense, divorced mother of two who is the best cop in the world. She’s a British version of Mare of Easttown (or maybe Mare of Easttown was an American version of Cawood), the kind of character who is addictive to watch. She’s so flawed as a person, she’s a crotchety, curmudgeonly ballbuster who suffers fools at their peril. But she’s a great cop, she’s tough on the bad guys. What makes her so great to watch and even easier to root for is how much she cares about her job and cares about protecting the vulnerable and the victims. Yes, it’s the kind of character writers dream about, but, let’s be honest, it’s also the kind of character all audiences want to watch. And, I imagine, the kind of character all actors would want to play, and Lancashire eats every morsel of this role with gusto. It’s no wonder she was nominated for Best Actress at the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts) for the first season and won for the second.

The show itself won the BAFTA for Best Drama both of its first two seasons, and rightfully so. It is a crime drama centered on Cawood, who finds out that Tommy Lee Royce, played by James Norton, a criminal who she blames for her daughter’s suicide, has been released from prison. She becomes obsessed with Royce, and with proving that he raped her daughter, which resulted in her daughter giving birth to her son, Ryan, who she is now raising. Her obsession with him affects her entire life, especially her relationship to her children and to her sister Clare, played by Siobhan Finneran, who also lives with them.

The relationship between Clare and Catherine is almost as good as any other plot in the show, as the chemistry between Lancashire and Finneran is perfect, and they find every nuance of sibling love, rivalry and resentment in their performances. The human stories in Happy Valley are what keep you glued, both between Catherine and her family members, but also the relationship between Catherine and the people she helps in the line of duty. She becomes particularly connected to a young female kidnapping victim, Anne Gallagher, played by Charlie Murphy, which provides a throughline in the series, making the show much more than your average new-episode-new-crime-to-solve format.

The show has been criticized for being a little too dark, and I can see that. But I’m a fan of The Leftovers, so dark really isn’t a problem for me. But some may find the intensity a bit much, and the character of Royce is just so loathsome, it’s hard to take. There is some pretty gnarly violence, but it’s not over the top, but best you be warned ahead of time.

The reason to watch Happy Valley is the charismatic and completely involving performance from Lancashire, who will have you yelling at the TV, you are rooting for her so much. But the story is also pretty compelling, the supporting performances excellent, and the setting in the north English countryside perfectly atmospheric.

One other cool element about this series is the first two seasons aired in 2014 and 2016. The third season didn’t come out until last year, seven years after the second season. They brought back all the actors, including Rhys Connah, who plays Ryan, Catherine’s grandson, who was just nine when the first episode came out. Ryan is now sixteen and he has a newfound interest in learning about his biological father, Royce. So fans of the show who watched it in real time had to wait seven years for new episodes, but because all three seasons are on BritBox now, you can binge them as fast as you want.

But be warned: this show is addictive, so those eighteen episodes might go pretty quickly. And trust me when I tell you, you will want to savor every moment, because characters like Catherine Cawood don’t come along too often.