Sally Wainwright started writing many years ago, but she flew under my radar for a long time. Until a couple of years ago, when she exploded into my consciousness with three shows that are now occupying high spots on my list of best television shows of all times.
“Scott and Bailey” came first, in 2011. Janet Scott and Rachel Bailey are getting everything Cagney and Lacey ever hoped they would have. They are two female detectives, working together during the day, confiding in each other during the night, and reporting to female superiors.
Check out the trailer and note how much iTV is playing up lesbian innuendo—including the song choice! We’ve come a long way since “Cagney and Lacey,” when lesbian audiences had to fight networks to allow lesbian tensions. Now they use it as a ratings ploy:
DC Janet Scott, played by superb actress Lesley Sharp, is a divorced mother of two. Her mother is the live-in nanny, which allows her to spend most of her waking hours solving crimes. She yearns for companionship, and she mostly gets it from her partner (in policing) and best friend, DC Rachel Bailey.
Bailey, who is by now a sergeant played by the sublime Suranne Jones, is the messed up not-so-young-anymore single woman who can’t hold on to a boyfriend for longer than a few months before she chases him away. She is impulsive, emotionally unstable, and self-destructive. But she has a heart of gold and a sharp mind, and she is dedicated to her work and determined to go up the ranks as high as she can.
Their captain, DCI Gill Murray, played by my newest favorite actress Amelia Bullmore (who in her spare time also writes episodes of the show) is one of the most interesting female characters I have ever seen on television. We don’t know much about her personal life, but that doesn’t even matter. Her personality is fascinating. She is wicked smart, has the keenest of senses, is powerful without needing to exert power, and she is full of respect for her female colleagues, both those who are superior to her and those who are under her command.
Gill reports to DSI Julie Dodson, played by Pippa Haywood, who is also her best friend. Are you reading this? Two pairs of best friends! Four mature, powerful women working together! No odds to overcome and no male authority figures to flirt or fight with to get their way. Absolutely unprecedented!
The show features cases that usually span one or two episodes, some season-long arcs, and the goings-on in the girls’ personal lives. But where Wainwright’s writing shines is in her characterization of her leading women.
Scott is the grounded, responsible, empathic detective, whose motherly charm and endless cool can bring confessions out of every perp. Bailey is the neurotic, erratic, emotional wreck, whose heightened perception is what makes her the excellent detective she is. And DCI Gill Murray is the wise, calm and collected Mama Bear, who is not afraid to show some softness when necessary. Even though the girls start off calling her as a witch behind her back, and even though the female ME is commonly referred to as “Scary Mary,” these come to be used as affectionate monikers; there is nothing but respect between all of these women and their male colleagues and subordinates.
“Happy Valley,” the latest addition to the Wainwright Hall of Fame, has only concluded its first season this year (and has, gratefully, been approved for a second), and has already garnered Wainwright some of the best critical acclaim of her career. It is another cop drama, but this time focusing on one single cop, Catherine Cawood, who is played by one of Britain’s finest thespians, Sarah Lancashire.
There is nothing happy about “Happy Valley.” It is one of the darkest, most disturbing shows you will ever see. But it is dark in the best of ways.
Catherine is a small village police sergeant with a dark past. She and her husband divorced after their daughter was raped and then committed suicide, but not before she gave birth to a baby boy, who was left as a constant reminder of the rape and that terrible death. Catherine’s husband left after she decided to raise the boy. Sarah’s grown son has also been estranged from her, since in a moment of terrible grief she said she had wished it were him who had died instead of the daughter.
Helping Catherine raise her grandchild is her recovered drug addict sister Clare, who is played by the wonderful Siobhan Finneran (who you might remember as Mrs. O’Brien from “Downton Abbey”). Together they struggle to lovingly raise a child who, they can’t help but worry, might have inherited some of his father’s psychopathic genes (no signs of that as of yet, though. The kid is as sweet as pie and is quite sad as the child whose family has to struggle to truly and unconditionally love him).
The first season revolves around two parallel, and not unrelated, plots: the kidnapping of a teenage girl, and the return of Catherine’s daughter’s rapist to town. Two of the most harrowing moments in the series involve Catherine’s ability to bond with another woman to defeat their male assailants.
In the first, one of Catherine’s cops, a young girl eager to impress, finds herself alone, in the middle of the road, with the psychopathic perp. He murders her in one of the most ruthless scenes you could imagine, leaving Catherine to feel guilty for pushing her to prove herself when she needed more maternal support.
In the second, Catherine is incapacitated by the perp as she tries to rescue the kidnapped teenager from the basement where she has been kept. The girl finds the strength to beat him down and drag Catherine out into the street, where they can be saved.
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There are so many intricate layers to this show, and they can all be seen in a single expression on Sarah Lancashire’s face: the loneliness, the pain, the cruel tricks life plays on hard-working people; the struggles to find maternal instincts in a mother who has buried her child; the challenging balance between being authoritative and being nurturing; the desperate need for comfort, and the near impossibility of ever truly finding it.
“Happy Valley” is very different from “Scott and Bailey.” Even though they are both police dramas, the dynamics on the shows are completely different. But it is even harder to believe that both shows flow from the same pen that writes the sweet, heartfelt romantic soap-like drama that is “Last Tango in Halifax.”
“Tango” is centered on the rekindled romance between high-school sweethearts, now septuagenarians, Celia and Alan, played by wonderful veteran actors Anne Reid and Derek Jacobi, whose love brings together two unlikely families. Alan’s daughter Gillian, the excellent Nicola Walker, is a down-to-earth farmer who lost her abusive husband in somewhat ambiguous circumstances. She is caring for her teenage son, his girlfriend, and their baby girl (aka Calamity Jane), along with some chickens and sheep.
Gillian is kind of a hot mess, who always makes the wrong choices when it comes to men. But she adores her father and has a good heart, even if her habit of calling things as they are can make her seem abrasive.
Celia’s daughter Caroline is played by Sarah Lancashire in a role that is 180 degrees from her “Happy Valley” one and that shows off just how good she can be in any role in any genre. She is the headmaster of a private school, extremely together, confident, and proper. She is raising two sons with an ex-husband she is desperately trying to get rid of but who keeps coming back. She has finally gathered the necessary courage to come out of the closet and introduce her new girlfriend Kate, a teacher at Caroline’s school, played by the lovely Nina Sosanya.
Caroline loves her mother, who lives in a little bungalow in her backyard. But Celia is no picnic. She is a tough, opinionated woman, who can be very unforgiving and is not responding well to her daughter’s newfound sexual identity. But oh how marvelous it is to see Caroline, albeit sad, not relenting for even a second in her assurance that who she is is not the least bit devalued by who she loves, even if her mother doesn’t fully agree.
Fortunately, her eldest son William (Edward Ashley) is more mature than his grandmother. Here is one of my favorite scenes between Caroline and her son:
Gillian and Caroline start off loathing each other, which actually made this experienced TV viewer think they were going to fall in love. But now they are like real sisters. Sometimes they get on each other’s nerves, but they can always trust that they’ll be there for each other and their families.
And that is the center of the show: family. No matter how hard-headed Celia can be, no matter how endlessly annoying Caroline’s ex-husband John is, and no matter how flawed they all are (and aren’t we all?), they all love one another infinitely and unconditionally.
Janet, Rachel, Gill, Catherine, Clare, Celia, Gillian, Caroline and Kate are nine very different examples of strong women. Not only are they confident in who they are, but you can feel the love and the pride their creator feels for them ooze from the screen.
They are well-rounded women, layered and interesting, completely non-clichéd, who have meaningful relationships with one another and with the world around them. They are flawed, yes, but they are not anti-heroines.
The idea of the anti-heroine is getting old. Having to justify having a complex character by giving her a fatal flaw, usually a mental illness or some other self-destructive characteristic to single her out as a unique genius, is to say we can’t be special or unique or interesting or complicated without having to pay a heavy price or be constantly on the brink of losing everything.
Sally Wainwright writes out of love for her fellow sisters, and British television is a place where a woman can do that. Hopefully, the hugely successful import of “Happy Valley” to America via Netflix will encourage more similar depictions in the great U.S. of A. No, networks, that doesn’t mean we want an American remake of “Valley” with Sarah Lancashire doing an American accent. We just want more female writers getting to write better female characters. Watch and learn.
The Most Underestimated Girl-Power Show:
ABC’s “Castle” is considered a light and fun police procedural, whose main character is an adorable, forever-child, rich mystery writer Richard Castle (the lovable Nathan Fillion) who hangs out with his forever-love Kate Beckett and helps her solve crimes. Except, this is just the formal description. In reality, this show is a true love letter to fabulous women.
Beckett (the irresistible Stana Katic) is the strong, Alpha cop, to whom Castle (and pretty much everyone else on the show) defers on practically everything. She is joined by her two female colleagues, police Captain Victoria Gates (Penny Johnson), and medical examiner Lanie Parish (Tamala Jones), both women in positions of power. And of course, we have the two women of the Castle family: Castle’s daughter Alexis (Molly C. Quinn), a smart, independent young woman, and his mother, Martha (the fabulous Susan Sullivan), a spirited aging stage actress who, as a single mother, raised him to appreciate women.
Castle is surrounded by powerful women, and he adores them. He might be the official center of the show, but the show, and he himself, is truly run by the important women in his life. So without anyone even noticing, this show turned out to be a triumphant vehicle for fantastic depictions of women.
Dream Come True of the Week:
This is not the main reason to watch “The Fall.” Exceptional writing, rapturous suspense, a fantastic strong female character in the center, and an alluring Gillian Anderson playing her, are. This scene is just gravy. Shame that the dream was deferred in the end. But who knows what the future might bring… Enjoy!