If you listen closely to the screaming hoards, you’ll hear plenty of complaints about the lack of content on Netflix. The loudest are usually bemoaning the lack of the latest Transformers, superheroes, or other bright, shiny, and exploding blockbuster. Those people have a point as Netflix is rather terrible at keeping up with the highest-grossing new releases. They aren’t particular good at grabbing the lower-tiered new releases either. If you are the sort of person who wants to watch a movie the moment it is available on home video, then Netflix is not the streaming service your looking for.
But what these complainers miss is that what Netflix does not have in the new release department they more than make up for in breadth and depth. This is particularly true with their foreign imports, especially of the British-drama variety. I have some 400 items in my queue, many of which are wonderful crime shows from just over the Atlantic.
One of the very best is Happy Valley, a terrific little thriller from the writer of Last Tango in Halifax (a show I hear wonderful things about and that sits in my queue but has yet to be seen by my eyes.) It stars Sarah Lancashire (who was also in Halifax) as Catherine Carwood, a police sergeant working a small town in West Yorkshire that is riddled with drugs (thus giving the town its “Happy Valley” nickname). She’s not your normal TV lead cop in that she’s a bit older, plumper, and ragged than your typical sexy heroine. She’s also had a harder life than most with a sister (Sioghan Finneran) who is a recovering drug addict, a dead daughter from suicide, and a young grandson she has to raise on her own. She’s also natural police with a quick mind and the tenacity to do her job extraordinarily well.
The series begins with Catherine learning that Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton), the man who raped her daughter, which ultimately led to her suicide, has been released from jail. While trying to deal with her very mixed emotions - as a parent and a police officer - from this news, she is confronted with a new case. Ann Gallagher (Charlie Murphy), daughter of local businessman Nevison Gallagher (George Costigan), has been kidnapped. Though Catherine doesn’t know it, we see the kidnapping was instigated by Nevis’s stammering, hapless, and very much cash-strapped accountant Kevin Weatherill (Steve Pemberton) and performed by local thug Ashley Cowgirl (Joe Armstrong). All sorts of drama, violence and suspense ensues.
Plotwise, it is pretty standard (though well-drawn) crime drama fare, but Happy Valley rises above the slew of competing shows by turning out clever little details, superbly drawn characters, and brilliant acting. Catherine Carwood is written with such depth of character and subtly defined humanity that she feels like the lady down the road rather than something made up for the screen. Sarah Lancashire’s performance draws deep into the well, bringing out a wealth of emotion and believability. Likewise, the rest of the cast performs their similarly drawn characters with a shrewdness rarely scene in such genre television.
Seriously, this is great TV. If you are looking for a compelling drama with some terrific writing and fantastic acting, Happy Valley is the place to go. It's streaming on Netflix as I write this, and for those not convinced Netflix is worth the money, you can now grab it on DVD.