Yes, I know, I’m late to the game. But that’s because, having watched season 1 and 2 of Happy Valley, I wasn’t much bothered about delving into season 3. Nothing new to offer, I thought. Standard terrestrial TV for an older, conservative audience (yes, I concede, assuming older correlates with conservative may be unfair, but years of media scholarship has embedded this bias into my thinking). But after reading rave reviews and hearing thumbs up analyses from respected friends, I felt I must have gotten something wrong. I’ve finally come to the realisation that I was, indeed, astute in my original analysis and that Happy Valley, is, indeed, meh.
I’ll begin this review/takedown/rant/lamentation by stating what I call the difference between good TV and suspenseful TV. And yes, before I hear you balking in my ear that ‘good’ is a very elitist and classist and sexist and racist and ableist and everything else ist term (and I would agree with the you), I’ll explain the difference:
- Character development that shows the complexity of human decision-making and how we become the people we are based on the choices we make. In other words, TV that doesn’t fall into the trap of stereotypical representation.
- TV that shows the true demographic make up of Britain, including our diverse friendship and collegial networks. This means TV should represent our multiple community associations (to break this down, I mostly mean here TV that simply allows characters to have human relations with other characters of different races — like an Asian mum who helps with carpools and shares a cup of tea with her neighbour).
- TV that positions you at the edge of your seat because it’s unpredictable and you’re not sure what’s going to happen next.
- TV that moves at a pace that is slow enough to allow tension to simmer but quick enough that you don’t get bored.
Now, it’s undeniable that Happy Valley is suspenseful. Although you know what each of the characters is up to, there’s something about the way it’s put together that leaves you intrigued as to what their next move is going to be. Things don’t quite happen in the way you expect them to, so you keep watching to learn what’s next. From a suspense perspective, Happy Valley has mastered the art of editing and the casting director, Beverley Keogh, has no doubt found a talented bunch of actors to play their parts.
But and here’s the big but (yes, pun intended) it isn’t even that unpredictable. And, despite being a thrilling watch, that doesn’t make it good TV. Here’s why I think the acclaim Happy Valley has garnered is, as the kids would say, extra.
#1 — Character development
As mentioned before, the characters are pretty stock standard. The lead female is this relentless warrior who takes no shit from people but also seems to have boundless time and energy to befriend and protect the vulnerable women around her. Her talent and dedication to work is superhuman — not only does she seem to have a sixth sense for what’s coming next, she also goes above and beyond her job description when she feels some poor woman is in need of her aid.
The Asian man is a dweeby pharmacist (LOL) who repeatedly trips on imaginary items until he kills the woman who is selling her body to him for prescription drugs and finds a new self-confidence that enables him to manipulate those around him with malicious ease.
The rapist father of Ryan, who is serving jail time for countless offences, is pure evil (in fact, Catherine Cawood, the protagonist of the show, unflinchingly refers to him as such) who seems to have no scruples and will stop at nothing to achieve his diabolical aims.
The PE teacher is an abusive and controlling husband and his wife is meek, addicted to diazepam, and can’t seem to have a moment in which she’s not manipulated by the men around her. Her role serves the mere purpose of demonstrating how awful men are.
I could go on, but do I need to? Or do you require me to show you more ‘insert here’ character tropes to convince you?
Now, anyone who reads my blog knows that I’m a hardened feminist. I’m all up for showing how tough decision making can be for women, who feel damned if we do and damned if we don’t, who are embedded in this culture of self-hatred because society wants to control women. But none of these characters are real. They’re too clean cut, too one-way, either a force for good or a force for evil. And even the characters who sit in the middle are pathetic — they simper for Catherine’s approval like children caught doing something wrong by their parents.
What’s more, their jobs aren’t real. Recent evidence has found the Met Police in London to be embedded in a culture of rampant mysoginy, racism, homophobia — the list could go on. And if this has been proved in the country’s most diverse police force, what are we likely to see in other forces? What this means is that, even if such a character as Catherine were to exist, determined to operate as a lone wolf, there’s no way her way of doing things would be accommodated for in the service because there would be hundreds above and around her who would make it impossible to enact any form of change.
What this TV show does, then, is perpetuate the myth of the white female hero figure — it replaces the do-gooder male detective with a female one. Even her characterisation as a woman is two-dimensional — her femaleness means that she ‘gets’ women’s problems when others can’t — as if women are this universal category who would all do better if they listened to Catherine.
And to be quite frank, it’s plots and characters like these that make it impossible to actually protect the vulnerable women who this show seems to be drawing our attention to. Happy Valley perpetuates the myth that to make a difference you simply need to be the right kind of person — in reality, Catherine Cawood would not be allowed to exist in our contemporary police culture.
#2 — ‘a feminist masterpiece’
While the TV show does offer some interesting moral conundrums — who has the ultimate right to choose what’s best for Ryan, for example — these are all nicely tied up when Catherine’s assumptions come to the fore and she is, once again, proven right. There’s very little thinking that needs to be done when watching this TV show. And that’s OK if that’s what you’re expecting. If reviews said, ‘this is a crime drama that does it’s job of building tension and suspense, if somewhat caracaturist,’ then I’d know what I was getting into. But reviews seem to laud Happy Valley as breaking barriers for women, paving new pathways for serial crime TV, etcetera. I mean, which women is this TV show breaking barriers for? Because this one-woman show is doing nothing for the feminist collective, for anti-hierarchical, anti-competitive, anti-racist struggle that is usually the stuff of intersectional feminist campaigning. If anything, the other female characters are feeble and needy, barely managing and that only with Catherine’s assistance.
Which brings me to my third frustation:
#3 — England does not look like this
For the one hundredth time, why the fuck is everyone white? Except for the token Asian character who murders the abused-wife-turned-sex-worker-to-help-her-cope. Why haven’t we got to a place where we can see what Britain actually looks like without fearing a Daily Mail backlash? And why can’t we show even an inkling of intersectional struggle?
#4 — The structure is the same in all three seasons
We know how it goes — a man is operating on the edge of the law, trying to bend crime to his fairly decent if questionable intentions, until something goes wrong and he’s forced deeper into crime and then slips up and is inevitably caught by Catherine Cawood’s genuis. Sound like a summary of season 3? That’s because it’s the plot of all three seasons. As is the father-son dynamic between Ryan and Tommy — Ryan believes his father has good intentions, Catherine knows otherwise and feels Ryan is being duped, Ryan sneaks his way into seeing his father, Tommy does something fucked up and Catherine is left picking up the damage while Ryan falls into another tantrum.
So while Catherine Cawood doesn’t require a Batmobile or webbing to help swing from one building to another, the narrative of Happy Valley is as shallow as ‘woman in police uniform comes to the rescue’. And to be quite frank, it’s plots and characters like these that make it impossible to actually protect the vulnerable women who this show seems to be drawing our attention to. Happy Valley perpetuates the myth that to make a difference you simply need to be the right kind of person — in reality, Catherine Cawood would not be allowed to exist in our contemporary police culture.
You know what would make good British crime TV in my opinion? A series that demonstrates the realities of working within and for the police — the corruption, manipulation, bias. That draws on the ways that a person with sound motivations for becoming a police officer turns misogynistic and racist because of the culture surrounding them. That shows how fucked up the justice system is because the ones making the decisions are the ones who commit the crimes themselves. That isn’t afraid to delve into how difficult it is to get a fair trial when a suspect is working class, black or brown, a migrant, gay and/or Muslim.
A British audience deserves better than thrilling but otherwise meaningless crime series.