I can take more than my fair share of crap TV cop drama. Formulaic is good: I haven’t seen True Detective yet, but I fear from what I’ve read that it might be less rigidly structured than I’d like. Two of the Law and Order police procedurals, plain old Law and Order and Law and Order: Criminal Intent, provide the perfect sort of thing. Intro: a kid’s dog comes out of the bushes in Central Park wagging its tail with a hand in its mouth, a couple having frantic stand-up sex next to a dumpster are brought short by one of them noticing a mangled body on the ground beside them. Cut to police couple (from early on in L&O, one of them the loose-limbed, cynical, ever watchable Jerry Orbach) examining the body. Duh DUM. Or as I understand the crew had it: Ker CHING. Credits. In vanilla L&O the cops find the culprit in the first 25 minutes, very often a close relative or business partner. Then Order takes over and the district attorney brings the perp to trial and usually does but sometimes doesn’t bring him or her to justice – occasionally only after an acquittal and a second arrest. L&O: Criminal Intent dispenses with the trial as part of its formula, but does have a DA who makes it difficult for the highly strung, physically excruciated, very deep in criminal understanding Detective Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio, also intensely watchable) to make an arrest and then interrogate the suspect into a weeping pulp of grateful confession. They are both so comfortingly regular in form that it really doesn’t matter if you’ve seen an episode before, just as it doesn’t matter whether you’re wearing old or new M&S knickers – it serves.
It only recently struck me that, although men predominate in the hierarchy of police and prosecution, criminals and victims are pretty much evenly spread between the sexes. It’s close to 50/50 whether the murderee and the murderer are male or female. There’s another L&O franchise: SVU. That’s Special Victims Unit, which deals only with sex crimes. In this, one of the main police leads is a woman (Mariska Hargitay – the big, handsome daughter of Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Hargitay) and, as in reality, nearly all the victims are women or young girls. I don’t watch this L&O very much. The clue is the word ‘victim’ in the title. The notion of ‘tragic’ is absent in the other two L&Os; it’s a word that might be used, but with no more than a nod to the feeling it should evoke. In SVU tragic is the mainspring. Tragic victims (usually) of men turn up week after week – young, old, damaged or dead, abused, beaten, raped – and with very few exceptions they are women. Apart from SVU, the L&Os have as much to do with tragedy as Miss Marple, Poirot or Midsomer Murders have over here. Indeed, the body-finding intro often ends with a joke or a pun. Ker CHING. As Orwell pointed out in ‘Decline of the English Murder’, Agatha Christie and Christie-like middle-class crimebusters are oblivious to the tragic, being interested mainly in the puzzle, not the awfulness of a life ending in murder and the grief of those who loved the victim.
There has lately been an increase, now practically an avalanche, of cop shows in the UK priding themselves on being ‘quality drama’, in the way that once the decidedly non-formulaic Wednesday Play or Play for Today were. Occasionally, as in Broadchurch, these have male children as the victims, but overwhelmingly, as in movie thrillers, the crimes are not accidentally (many would argue that no crime against women is accidental) against women. Simple, as people have recently been putting it, misogyny. The more gruesomely depicted, the better. Happy Valley was the most recent – six-part – serial to be cooed over as quality drama. I watched it with increasing reluctance, until, thank god, it came to an end. While it was showing, Elliot Rodger made his videos telling the world about the unfairness of his virginity, which he laid at the door of all the women who didn’t sleep with him. Then he went on his killing spree. I think that event played a part in my response to the show.
Why did I watch it? Partly because in many ways Happy Valley was not crap, and you can’t be watching crap all the time. I knew Sally Wainwright to be a fine writer of dialogue who puts non-glamorous, thoughtful and effective women at the centre of her work. I’d seen her series about two female detectives in Manchester, Scott and Bailey (a hint at their motte-and-bailey mutual fortification), a police procedural in the same vein as Dixon of Dock Green, which, like Law and Order, followed a pair of cops and their boss at work – new crimes were solved each week – but also checked in on their complicated lives. It was an interesting, subtle series, with three women in the lead police parts (the only aspect of the show that departs from its well-modulated realism). The women’s personal lives weren’t startlingly original, but were well enough written and acted, spiky ordinariness disguising the clichés. The crimes they engaged with were both quirky and domestic, and the writer and actors between them created some of the most delicate and moving interrogation scenes I’ve come across.
Length might have been the source of the problem with Happy Valley (a title so weighted with irony that halfway through the first episode of rapidly accumulating coincidences, I was shrieking, ‘Enough, now!’ at the screen). It might have worked as a three-hour two-parter, but the bagginess apparently required by quality drama gave it (as it did Luther, Broadchurch, The Fall, Line of Duty) far too much space for its single storyline not to go off the rails. In this case an absurd plot (all murder plots may be absurd, but some are more absurd than others), set in decidedly unabsurd Hebden Bridge, is filled in with graphically threatened violence, and often enough the acts themselves. A mousey accountant gets his own back on his boss who refuses him a raise to enable him to send his daughters to private school. He suggests to a local wideboy, formerly content to deal cannabis, that they could kidnap the boss’s daughter. It plays out exactly as you are now imagining: ‘The Pardoner’s Tale’ and all that. But when one of the wideboy’s helpmeets (pointed out at the beginning as ‘odd’ by his fellow perp) turns out to be the man who raped the star policewoman’s daughter, who then gave birth and killed herself, you fear that you might be in a driverless vehicle. It hurtles, as expected, straight to hell. The police heroine getting wind of the rapist’s release from prison brings ghoulish flashbacks of her daughter’s hanging torso. The child of the rape suddenly gets curious about his paternity. Another policewoman is deliberately crushed to death by the rapist, who is increasingly shown to be one of those deadly TV psychopaths who need no further explanation. The kidnapped daughter is repeatedly (the programme having so much TV time on its hands) violated and humiliated, shown over and over again as the victim of the psychopath’s visceral misogyny, raped, drugged and tormented, until I found myself looking away with each new scene. Everything that happens, every turn of the plot, is predictable from the initial set-up, including the final episode of the rapist capturing and threatening his child, and being given a cathartic kicking by the policewoman, who ends up metonymically overlooking the happ(ier) valley with rising music and the beginning of a small smile to tell us that she has overcome her ghosts and will be ready for the next series.
There were some complaints about unnecessary violence and misogyny but Sally Wainwright has rejected the criticism of what she calls her ‘quality, well-written drama’: ‘If you get your head smacked against the wall, you bleed. It’s life … Drama is about the dark side. How bad things happen to good people. All the women in this are seen to suffer in some way.’ That last is true. The other notable women in the series, in addition to the direct victims of crime, are suffering from MS or depression, dying of cancer, or recovering from drug addiction. Women, seen and seen again to suffer. I don’t spend my life looking away from suffering, but the camera’s long gaze as the sadistic attacker slowly approaches, giving the victims and us plenty of time to know and dread what is about to happen, rather than alerting me to the way life is, makes me doubt the good faith of the show. The easy redemption of the victims – the raped and battered woman simply announcing that she refused to become a victim – feels like tacked on justification, far weaker than the violence they received. I think I will avoid a second series of Happy Valley in the same way that I don’t watch the Special Victims Unit version of Law and Order. I regret that so much writing and acting talent is being channelled into crude and overblown melodrama dubiously justified as ‘real life’. Pickpocketing and shoplifting are real life too, but there are precious few series about them. In the name of confronting the truth, the current versions of ‘quality drama’ seem obliged to present us with the abject life as it very often isn’t, and as a result to be as formulaic as any cop show, but much more po-faced.