If mid-century pulp and noir gave us the cynical, quippy hardboiled detective, then Peak TV has given birth to its successor: the charbroiled cop, a bitter, corrupt, philandering, violent, addicted, nihilistic or just psychotic contemporary crime fighter. The supposed irony of this figure is that he (almost always a he) is barely distinguishable from the scumbags he opposes. In 2016, unimaginative TV executives might call him an “edgy antihero.”
We’ve seen several iterations of the same damaged sleuth. That’s part of why TV’s most captivating agent of the law right now is not a suit grinding after a serial killer or two, but a neon-clad street-beat bobby who brings sandwiches to the local sex workers she warns to stay vigilant after attacks on other downtrodden women in their neighborhood. For her, heroism isn’t just in the hunt — it’s in the humanity of defending her whole community.
Catherine Cawood, the steely police sergeant at the helm of riveting two-season BBC/Netflix crime drama Happy Valley, shares some brooding traits with the enfants terribles of The Wire, True Detective, The Shield, Luther and Hannibal. She may be a 40-something grandmother with blue-lantern eyes, a mop of corn-yellow hair and a down-home Yorkshire brogue, but she’s also full-to-burst with desperate anger and quick to put others — reprobates and family alike — in their place. More than eight years after the suicide of Becky, her teenage daughter, Cawood is still tormented by grief, and also resentment: She was left to care for Becky’s newborn son, the product of a sadistic rape.
Choosing to raise the boy destroyed her marriage and caused her to leave her job as a respected homicide detective. At the start of the series, when her daughter’s rapist and grandson’s biological father, Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton, beautiful and terrifying), leaves prison for their economically depressed Northern English village, our barbed heroine goes into full panic mode. She must shield the child but can’t resist flirting with her primal desire for vengeance. It just so happens that investigating some horrific local crimes eventually leads her to this sociopath.
What follows throughout the two season’s 12 episodes is a bloody, twisty, stomach-in-your-throat thriller as Cawood’s expert nose sniffs out the rot of her town: an affluent young woman’s ransom and sexual assault, the barbaric slaying of her protégé, the murders and mutilations of local prostitutes, a human-trafficking ring. These crimes and Royce’s involvement in them catapult the story forward, but the focus always remains on Cawood as she (badly) manages her personal trauma while just trying to do her damn job — chiefly, safeguarding drug addicts and other marginalized folk from self-destruction.
Bubbling underneath the surface of Happy Valley’s palpitating season-length arcs is a study on the nature of law enforcement as social work itself. No other TV drama is taking so close a look at the opioid crisis or the caste systems that have created it. In a time when real-life police activity and brutality are under constant media scrutiny — and rightfully so — Cawood reminds us that the majority of police work is still about preserving everyday welfare, not inciting violence. (That said, street cops in England do not carry firearms.)
It’s not all doom and gloom in the Calder Valley. Star Sarah Lancashire brightens Cawood’s staunch countenance with acid-tongued zingers and vicious, doe-eyed vulnerability. She rages, but her empathy for her townspeople burns even brighter, as does her frustration with the structural oppression she observes daily. In the series’ darkly hilarious cold open, we meet Cawood as she struts toward a playground hauling a fire extinguisher. When a young tweaker paces at the top of a jungle gym, threatening to set himself on fire in front of the toddlers, there’s no time to wait for the force’s highly ranked negotiator to arrive. “He can send himself to paradise if that’s his choice, but he’s not taking my eyebrows with him,” she cracks to a colleague before coolly approaching as though he were a cat stuck in a tree.
Later, when loved ones jest and pry for gossip about the incident, she balks. Another day, another smackhead she must calmly ask to please remove the syringe still lodged in his blackened toe — what’s harder for her to bear is seeing people kicked when they’re down. Cawood’s simultaneous bemusement and fierce protectiveness helps make this the most achingly realistic — and fascinating — depiction of the relentless, quotidian monotony of police work I’ve seen on screen.
In the U.S. it’s easy to love a firefighter and hate a cop — especially the stereotype of the venal, racist, trigger-happy lug defined by machismo. Happy Valley distorts this image. As Cawood reasons, it’s her duty to step in when everything else has broken down — whether reining in her town’s bizarre carnival of drug-induced behaviors or arresting a city councilman for cocaine possession against the advice of her superiors. And it leaves her to witness the cycle of poverty and power time and time again. “Any intelligence they have, drug squad, about where all this stuff’s coming from … how it’s getting here — I never get to hear about it,” she fumes. “I only get to mop up the mess at the end.” If the charbroiled cop represents the real-life villains who perpetuate police abuse, Happy Valley elucidates how the other half serves: admirably, empathetically and courageously.
We’re at a stage in fandom culture where a female character gets deemed “badass” if she can merely throw a punch. Cawood’s feminist force of strength goes beyond her alpha-wolf ferocity. “Be patient with people,” she instructs her team after a tragedy. “To everyone out there, if they’ve had to call the police, it’s a big deal. So whatever’s going on in your head, you treat people with the compassion and respect they deserve.” In an age where the art of nurturing is systematically devalued (just ask any social worker, nursing assistant, teacher or rehabilitation therapist their salary), Cawood’s electrifying “mama bear” posture is a refreshing reinvention of the classical hero. Misogynists may decry this emotional labor as “women’s work” and some feminists will eschew it for fear of being pigeonholed into the role of caretaker, but there’s as much power in comforting the weary as there is in roughing up a bad guy.
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