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.

Can’t wait for Serial Season 2? Five awesome podcasts to download today.

I am instantly suspicious of things everybody likes. I know, I’m a horrible snob, but I can’t help it. The minute everyone starts banging on about the same show or book or movie, my first thought is ‘it can’t be that good.’ Sometimes I’m completely justified; Lost, Twilight, the entire Pirates of the Caribbean franchise… The downside is, sometimes I’m awkwardly late to the party when something genuinely fantastic appears. So it was with Serial, the podcast that gripped listeners the world over when it launched in October 2014. I heard rumblings on the internet about the show, which grew louder as time went on until even the national newspapers’ spidey senses were tingling. Serial went from surprise hit, to online sensation, to full-on cultural phenomenon, and I went…‘meh.’

Which only goes to prove what I already knew; sometimes I’m a complete idiot. I finally took the plunge this summer and was instantly hooked, blasting through all 12 episodes in a few days. Unsurprising given my addiction to mystery novels, true crime and police procedurals; Serial combines the best elements of all of these genres, offering a compelling narrative, genuine pathos, and a fascinating insight into the workings of the justice system. If you’re even more behind the times than me, be sure to check it out at http://serialpodcast.org/

Whether you’re in camp #FreeAdnan or still sitting on the whodunit fence, when the show ended most listeners were left hungry for more. Season 2 of Serial is expected to drop sometime near the end of this year, and is rumoured to be covering the story of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was captured by the Taliban and accused of deserting his post in Afghanistan. Until then, here are a few suggestions to sate your appetite for mystery and keep your ears busy.

Criminal
Why were the 19th century’s most gruesome murders immortalized in song? How could a plaster statue of Buddha transform a dangerous neighbourhood? Appropriately named host Phoebe Judge takes a look at the world of crime and punishment from every angle; victims, criminals, law enforcement, and the rest of us reading the papers. I’ve driven twice round the block on my way home from work because I can’t stop listening to an episode. Truly fascinating stuff.
http://thisiscriminal.com/

Detective
The detectives in the Hae Min Lee case could be the heroes or the villains of the story, depending on your view. But behind every story are real people, trying to get the job done and close cases. Retired Colorado Springs Detective Joe Kenda reminisces about his experiences in this podcast, and gives listeners a glimpse of everyday life in the homicide division. The episodes are short, but some of them will stay with you long after you stop listening.
https://audioboom.com/channel/detective

Limetown
A gated compound in the middle of nowhere. An enigmatic scientist with wild ideas and dubious methods. A terrified 911 call, and then…nothing. What really happened to the citizens of Limetown? Fictional mysteries are no less absorbing when they’re done the right way, and this documentary style drama is the perfect creepy podcast as the nights draw in.
http://www.limetownstories.com/

The Black Tapes Podcast
If Serial taught us anything, it’s that ‘truth’ is subjective. Confirmation bias means we tend to see what we believe will be there. Dr. Richard Strand is trying to prove to the world that the paranormal is all in our minds. Standing in his way are his collection of ‘Black Tapes’; cases that even he can’t explain. Journalist Alex Reagan joins him on a series of creepy cases, and tries to solve the ultimate mystery; the one locked in Dr. Strand’s past. Do you believe?
http://theblacktapespodcast.com/

Undisclosed
There have been many Serial spin-offs, as fans took to the airwaves to continue the crusade and share their own theories. But for those who want to dig deeper into the events of January 13th, 1999, Undisclosed is the ultimate companion. Rabia Chaudry, the lawyer who first introduced Sarah Koenig to Adnan Syed, explores every avenue of the case, unearthing some tantalising new facts along the way. Whatever your take on the case, delving into the details is a fascinating and frustrating ride.
http://undisclosed-podcast.com/