Happy Valley is a lot like other crime dramas on the surface, but it takes viewers where few others dare, writes Alex Casey (Warning: this story contains spoilers).

"This is just serious Coronation Street," my partner spat over his book, his eyes flitting only occasionally to TV One's multi-night thriller extraordinaire, Happy Valley.

On the surface, at least, he was absolutely right. Happy Valley appears as innocuous as any other timeless small-town British crime series, from The Bill to Broadchurch, following a detective with a dark past solving unnerving cases lurking beneath the wholesome veneer of community, blah blah blah.

But Happy Valley is so much more than that, twisting a complex web of debauched morality with lashings of grisly, brutal crimes into a must-see drama. Created, written and directed by Sally Wainwright (Last Tango in Halifax), the characters are all broken to the point of no repair and the story unrelenting in its sharp turns into dark alleyways.

Set in the drizzliest of West Yorkshire towns, the show follows Sergeant Catherine Cawood, a feared matriarch of the community and single grandparent. She is raising her grandson Ryan, the son of her daughter's rapist, Tommy Lee Royce.


After giving birth, Catherine's daughter committed suicide. Say farewell to any suggestion of the titular "happy" forever. Last season we saw Catherine lock up Royce again after his release saw him enter immediately into a hostage situation. This season, she is faced with another reminder of her past.

"I think we may have entered the Twilight Zone," Catherine tells her sister as she recounts a grisly phenomena of dead local livestock in the first episode. Soon after we find that Royce's mother has been found mutilated and murdered just round the corner, and this time Cawood is a potential suspect.

While detectives swarm the town on the hunt for a serial killer, there's another plotline reaching boiling point. After ending an extramarital affair, Detective John Wadsworth has found himself being blackmailed by his illicit lover.

His hands-on reaction adds a festering Dexter-style subplot to the hand-wringing drama.

It's hard not to buy into such absurdity when the characters are delivered so perfectly realised, so blithely everyday.

Sarah Lancashire's Bafta-winning performance as Catherine creates a woman consumed with conflicts. As we see her with her counsellor in episode three, her hard exterior cracks only momentarily, revealing a sliver of vulnerability. Her sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran) is the exact opposite, a fragile ex-heroin addict and alcoholic with an exceptional sweater collection. Joined by Kevin Doyle as jumpy Detective Wadsworth and myriad Harry Potter stars (Moaning Myrtle! Neville Longbottom!), it's about as English as it gets.

With three more nights left of the second season, it would be criminal for fans of thrilling drama to miss out on Happy Valley. It packs the picturesque horror of Hannibal with the chilling smalltown intrigue of Top of the Lake, with spurts of Game of Thrones violence. And if it all gets too much for you - there's always Coronation Street.

* Season one of Happy Valley is available on Lightbox; Season two is available on TVNZ on Demand.