Breaking Bad, Mad Men, True Detective… you can keep ’em all. For me, the best drama of the decade so far comes down to a straight fight between two shows: Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty and Sally Wainwright’s Happy Valley.
The former has already defied the law of diminishing returns by producing a second series even better than the first. So can Happy Valley, which returned for its sophomore run this week, pull off the same trick, or is it doomed to suffer the fate now known as ‘doing a Broadchurch?’
On the evidence of the first episode, I’m relieved to report the omens are good. It opened with a fabulously salty tale of sheep-rustling, ‘north Halifax-style’, before taking a handbrake turn into the dark as Sarah Lancashire’s Sergeant Catherine Cawood – the most realistic copper on telly, not that that’s saying much – discovered a decaying corpse in a garage.
The victim turned out to be the mother of Tommy Lee Royce – the psychotic killer and rapist who Catherine holds responsible for her daughter’s death. It’s a revelation that rips open still-healing wounds and sets up a bloody revenge tragedy, with Royce – terrifyingly played by James Norton as a caged animal, boiling with barely-supressed rage – exploiting the devotion of a troubled, fantasist admirer (Shirley Henderson) to orchestrate his retribution from behind bars.
Around this central danse macabre, Wainwright weaves a tangled web of stories, secrets and lies, played out by a terrific cast. Downton’s Kevin Doyle is particularly good as a policeman being blackmailed by his spurned lover, filling a similar panicky, weakling invertebrate role to Steve Pemberton in the first series.
As a byproduct, Happy Valley is also a tribute to the women of Weatherfield. Coronation Street has always foregrounded strong females, and this boasts three of its finest graduates: Julie Hesmondhalgh, Katherine Kelly and, of course, Sarah Lancashire, whose tough but vulnerable Catherine is the show’s beating, bloodied heart.
If I have a slight reservation from an otherwise impeccable hour of television, it’s that the serial killer storyline threatens to push the series into the overblown territory of a Luther or Silent Witness. But if anyone can make even that subject matter real, and honest, and true, it’s Wainwright and Lancashire.
After an absence of 14 years, the revived X-Filed is strictly business as usual. Fox Mulder (David Duchovny, laconic to the point of comatose) is still mumbling about global, military-industrial conspiracies – albeit now with a post-9/11 spin involving government surveillance, petro-dollars and something to do with shopping – which Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) dismissed as ‘bogus, paranoid and stupid’. On the strength of this clunky, info-dump-heavy opener, she may have a point – but fans insist it gets better as it goes along. You just have to believe.
Sugar Free Farm
After two weeks working as sugar-free farmhands (quite an odd concept, when you think about it), ITV’s celebrity detoxers – including Rory McGrath, Jennifer Ellison and someone from TOWIE (obvs) – were finally released back into the wild. Along the way, they’d revolutionised their diets and, as a bonus, can also perform a buffalo pregnancy test, should the need arise. Going sugar-free in the real world proved more of a challenge, of course. Hence the only healthy eating tip I can really offer is to try to get yourself signed up for a sugar-free reality TV show.
Published in Waitrose Weekend, February 11, 2016
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