The Canny Valley

Warning: Contains mild spoilers for Happy Valley Seasons 1 & 2.

Much is made of the lack of diversity on our film screens, from #OscarsSoWhite to the sexist casting notes that would be hilarious if they weren’t so depressing. In Hollywood, women over 35 can play either the Queen or somebody’s mum. Meanwhile, craggy middle-aged dudes seduce stunning rom-com 20-somethings, or limp their way through another action franchise. So it’s heartening to see that, over in TV land, writers and directors are starting to offer female actors more of the complex, meaty roles that their male counterparts have long enjoyed.

Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Robin Wright; on the US networks, these ladies are bringing us compelling characters who kick serious butt in 6-inch stilettos. But the heroine who really speaks to me is more likely to be found in a woolly hat and a hi-vis jacket. Sarah Lancashire has long been one of British TV’s gems, from her Coronation Street days to her award-winning performance in Last Tango in Halifax. But to my mind, Happy Valley is her finest hour.

Lancashire plays Sergeant Catherine Cawood, a West Yorkshire police officer who won’t let the ghosts of her past stop her from serving her community. When the man who raped her daughter is released from prison and returns to his old stomping grounds, she must face her own demons while unravelling complex cases and holding her family together.

Catherine is a tough cookie with a mind is as sharp as her tongue. Yet we also get to see her flaws, her vulnerability, and the struggle she faces taking the lead both at home and in the workplace. The second season of Happy Valley, which just landed on Netflix, sees Catherine both investigating and suspected of a series of murders. The wonderful Charlie Murphy also makes a triumphant return, her character transformed from helpless victim to rookie police officer with her sights on CID.

TV detectives are so often talented loners, piecing together clues with their massive brains, but incapable of solving the riddle of other human beings. The beauty of Catherine Cawood is that she is a not a detective; she’s a police officer. From the opening scene of the first episode, where she talks down a drug addict determined to set himself on fire, she relies on people skills to solve problems. She cares, she listens, and it makes her brilliant at what she does. The message that order can be maintained not only through force, but through compassion, is a powerful one. Sometimes a simple conversation can be all that it takes. Other times, however, you just have to Taser someone in the crotch.

Taser

Luckily, she’s got that covered.

Spoiler Alert – Making A Murderer

Full confession: I haven’t actually finished watching Making a Murderer yet. But thanks to the internet (and a healthy pessimism about the universe) I know how it ends. I went home to the UK for a couple of weeks over Christmas, and nestled under the warm blanket of nostalgic films and familiar TV specials. The BBC obliged me with, not only a fantastic three-part Agatha Christie adaptation, but the heart-stopping excitement of Benedict Cumberbatch in a tartan suit a one-off Sherlock episode.* Confident that I had won the gold medal for festive TV viewing, I returned home to Canada to find that the whole continent had spent their turkey-coma days bingeing on Making a Murderer. I had some catching up to do.

The first episode of MaM has enough material for a series by itself. You’re pulled in to the familiar arc of one man’s wrongful conviction, fight for justice, and eventual exoneration. What happens next seems to beggar belief; you find yourself checking the internet to ensure this is not an incredibly well produced docudrama. The amount of material available, from recorded telephone calls to courtroom footage, allows us to watch the case unfold in incredible detail. It’s like Season One of Serial, except…crazier. And with pictures.

Some of my favorite scenes are conversations between Avery’s defense team, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting. Perched on the couch in dad jeans and bare feet, chewing over the details of the case and their upcoming strategy, they are the opposite of the usual glamorous TV lawyers. Get them in front of a jury or a gaggle of reporters, however, and they pull no punches. This combination of down-to-earth relatability and skillful court performances have earned the duo legions of admirers. Strang in particular is on his way to becoming both an internet heartthrob and a fashion icon, after his ‘normcore’ style inspired its own Tumblr.

As with any case that gains this high a profile, the controversy has begun. Critics point to crucial information left out of the documentary, and the breadth of conspiracy required to manufacture all of the evidence against Avery. Some accuse the show of misleading viewers in order to make Avery’s case. But the aim of a documentarian, or indeed a trial lawyer, is not to search for ‘truth’. It is to present a compelling story that resonates with their audience. Any ‘truth’ to be found in a court of law comes from the clash of two competing narratives. The two sides choose which parts of the messy accumulation of information they wish to emphasize – or obscure – to make their case. The only hope for justice is that this process operates according to the rules. That one story is not given a higher billing or wider distribution. That the illustrating facts are honestly collected, fully disclosed and thoroughly interrogated by the opposition.

Watching MaM or listening to Serial, we are reminded of the power law enforcement and the judiciary possess to shape the narrative that reaches a jury’s ears. We see how the system’s checks and balances – such as the presumption of innocence – can fail in the face of corruption. For Steven Avery or Adnan Syed, their story was unfairly overshadowed when it mattered most, and their lives forever altered as a result. By revisiting their cases, we are at last allowed to hear an alternative narrative, and to redress a balance lost during their days in court. Whether the verdict was correct is something only they can truly know. What matters to us as a society is how it was achieved. As ever, Dean Strang says it better than I can:

Human endeavours are muddy, they are imperfect by definition, and a chase for the truth in a criminal trial can be in vain. Justice, it seems to me, is staying true to the set of principles that we have about what we do

 
That’s why he’s a heartthrob, and I’m just a blogger.

*More on this later.

Just watch Kung Fury already!
I’m not going to go into details about Kung Fury. I honestly don’t want to spoil it for you. It’s the kind of thing you dream of stumbling across at 2 AM when you can’t sleep and you’re surfing those random channels you get free with cable package. Afterwards, you’re not sure if everything you just experienced was a dream. You try and describe it to your friends, but it’s impossible to sum it up. Just watch it, you urge them. Trust me. Finally, they relent; after a crazy night on the town*, you all pile on the couch for a viewing. They’re amazed. It’s a night you’ll laugh about for years to come; you’ll quote lines at each other and giggle like idiots, much to the annoyance of everyone around you. Your status as an expert on all things cultural and hilarious is cemented forever.

If you live in a state where recreational marijuana is legal, you might find that a responsible amount complements the experience nicely. If prohibition is still in force where you are, don’t worry; it’s only a matter of time. In the meantime, why not try a nice pinot noir, or pop a straw in a two-litre bottle of cider? Either way, you might also want to have some cheesy puffs handy.

Kung Fury

If you’re still not sold, you might like to know that the makers of Kung Fury funded the entire project through a Kickstarter campaign. So if you get nothing else out of these thirty minutes of entertainment, at least you spent half an hour of your week supporting independent filmmaking. Good for you, buddy.

Kung Fury is streaming on Netflix now. Just watch it. Trust me.

*Or, if you are in your thirties, a particularly raucous wine and cheese night.