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Happy Valley Set the Standard for the Modern Mystery Drama

The British series’s influence can be seen on both sides of the Atlantic, in award-winning shows like Mare of Easttown and Time.
  • Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown; Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley; Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective (Photos: HBO/BBC; Primetimer graphic)
    Kate Winslet in Mare of Easttown; Sarah Lancashire in Happy Valley; Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective (Photos: HBO/BBC; Primetimer graphic)

    Since the one-two punch of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, British mysteries have been one of the island nation’s greatest exports alongside Shakespeare. The genre has long informed American procedural shows, both consciously (see: Rian Johnson's Benoit Blanc film series, a direct updating of the Christie drawing room murder mystery) and subconsciously (see: every emotionless Sherlock-esque detective in history). However, nothing has changed the landscape more than Happy Valley, rightly viewed as a landmark turning point in the storied British mystery, helping usher in an era of working-class realism to the genre and spawning imitators on both sides of the pond.

    British shows are rarely canceled as much as they simply are never renewed — Sherlock, for instance, was never put out to pasture so much as Cumberbatch, Freeman, and Moffatt eventually moved on. The practice has meant shows can return after years off the air, should the creator have an idea for a new set of episodes. In the case of writer Sally Wainwright, that’s now occurred twice, first with her award-winning 2012 series Last Tango in Halifax, which returned in 2020, and now with 2014’s Happy Valley, whose third and final season was released in the U.K. in January 2023, and now comes to AMC Networks, premiering simultaneously on AMC+, Acorn TV, and BBC America on May 22.

    Happy Valley’s return after seven years dormant is partially due to AMC Networks, which announced it was co-producing the show’s final season with the BBC back in 2021. The decision to stream it across multiple variations of the programmer’s niche holdings is a sign of how highly the production studio thinks of its acquisition, as well it should. American detective series aren’t as class-conscious as those on the other side of the pond, but Happy Valley’s focus on those living paycheck to paycheck resonated with U.S. audiences and inspired countless variations on its gritty views of law enforcement in American police procedurals.

    Wainwright’s drive to create Happy Valley ironically stemmed from what she saw as the “Americanization” of British police procedurals in shows like Luther and Law & Order UK, which seemed to behave as if a mystery series had to follow the hallmarks of what Americans recognized as policing in order to hit it big. (As Wainwright told The Guardian at the time, “Most cop drama [British writers] see is American, and they want to be like The Wire or whatever.")

    However, it was the very Britishness of Happy Valley’s attitude towards policing strategies that made it so unique and so realistic, even if its initial success, like many British shows that hit it big in the United States in the mid-2010s, was an accident of Netflix timing.

    The first season premiered in April 2014 on BBC One and was quickly scooped up by the streaming service that August, when Netflix still had the landscape mostly to itself and the “Netflix bump” was a relatively new phenomenon. The series also had multiple things to help raise its profile within Netflix’s all-important algorithm, including a stellar cast playing the central trio, all of whom American PBS audiences recognized. Sarah Lancashire, from the aforementioned Last Tango in Halifax, starred as PC Catherine Cawood, Siobhan Finneran from Downton Abbey played her sister Clare, and James Norton from Grantchester was counterbalancing his hot priest persona with the first of what would wind up being a slew of villain roles as rapist Tommy Lee Royce. Season 2, which followed in 2016, featured guest star turns by Harry Potter's Matthew Lewis and Shirley Henderson, plus another Downton vet, Kevin Doyle.

    But the series also was different from other procedurals that came before, and not just because it was the rare female-led (and female-centric) crime drama at a time when those were still mainly the province of men. It also did away with the dashing middle- to upper-class detectives in expensive suits and polished shoes who have populated British mysteries from Hercule Poirot and Lord Peter Wimsey in the Golden Age to Adam Dalgliesh and Endeavour Morse in more modern series. Instead, it traded out the stereotype for a low-level, working-class Police Constable in Hi-Vis vests and boots, putting someone on the front line as the central heroine.

    The series was far from the first to add dirt and grime in the name of “prestige.” Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder had already been doing it for years with comic book movies, George R.R. Martin and HBO mixed it with fantasy to create Game of Thrones in 2010, and Steven Knight married the concept to period dramas with Peaky Blinders in 2013. However, Wainwright went a step further, teaming with retired Huddersfield PC Lisa Farrand, who brought a level of realism to the violence and bloodshed, adding the sort of on-screen details only first-hand experience in policing could provide and an insider’s view of the moral gray area most law enforcement find themselves working in. It turned the series into the poster child for the "gritty crime drama."

    The resulting show didn't shy away from the blood, sweat, and dirt of grunt police work, and the initial six episodes contained scenes of the casual brutality law enforcement experience daily and become inured to, though it made sure to leave just enough to the imagination so those moments would earn a mid-level rating. Its working-class focus also put casual law-breaking as part of the landscape in plain sight, along with the fight against drug addiction and the easy money in corruption. It also lent credence to Catherine’s running fear that her grandson Ryan, a child of rape, would follow in his dad’s footsteps and turn to a life of crime. This apprehension reflected one of the series's themes, that of nature vs. nurture. However, by rooting the series within the lower class milieu, the series drove home the circumstances Catherine can’t seem to lift her family out of, no matter how many bad guys she puts away.

    By the time Season 2 arrived in 2016, Happy Valley was already changing the way U.K. TV police procedurals were conceived. BBC Studio’s emerging writers' ScriptWorks program began recruiting retired law enforcement, giving opportunities for those who have experience inside the system to write and create these shows. Even shows that had previously not used insiders to help inform their shows, like Line of Duty, started consulting with them. American shows were now also racing to catch up with their British brethren, as series like True Detective, a Southern gothic spin on what Broadchurch was doing, hit big on HBO. Even Law and Order’s Dick Wolf took a page from Happy Valley, consulting with veterans for his CBS ensemble show FBI.

    In 2021, years after True Detective’s arrival on HBO, Line of Duty’s Jed Mercutio produced Bloodlands, an Ireland-set procedural based on the history of the Troubles. At the Television Critics Association that January, writer Chris Brandon cited True Detective’s sense of place as his inspiration in creating an Irish-centric mystery, bringing things full circle.

    Happy Valley’s extensive influence can be seen today in award-winning series like 2021’s Time and 2022’s The Responder. Meanwhile, in the U.S., HBO premiered the limited series Mare of Easttown, a cross between True Detective and Happy Valley, which star Kate Winslet has suggested HBO is holding open for a second season, should series creator Brad Ingelsby come up with a new story worthy of telling. How very British of them. While we wait, Season 3's Stateside debut is a well-timed reminder that a decade after it began, Happy Valley still sets the standard for the competition.

    Happy Valley Season 3 premieres May 22 at 3:01 A.M. ET on AMC+ and Acorn TV, and at 10:00 P.M. ET on BBC America. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Ani Bundel is an entertainment writer covering everything from celebrities to movies to peak TV when she's not tweeting or Instagramming photos of her very fuzzy cats. Her other regular bylines can be found at PBS/WETA's Telly Visions, where she co-hosts a weekly podcast by anglophiles for anglophiles, CNN Opinions, and MSNBC Daily. 

    TOPICS: Happy Valley, Law & Order, Mare of Easttown, True Detective, Kate Winslet, Sally Wainwright, Sarah Lancashire, Siobhan Finneran