Warning: contains plot descriptions for Mare of Easttown and Happy Valley
Mare Sheehan and Catherine Cawood are both working class, fortysomething police officers in small towns where opioid addiction is rife. They’re divorced and live close to their exes. They have a cantankerous relationship with their live-in mother/sister (delete as appropriate). They each had a son and a daughter, one of whom took their own life, leaving behind a grandson to raise. The grandson’s surviving parent has a history of drugs and violent crime, and Mare and Catherine would do anything to keep them away.
Played respectively by Kate Winslet and Sarah Lancashire, Mare and Catherine are the no-nonsense beating hearts of their crime dramas, and clearly spiritual sisters. Forced into seeing an occupational therapist, both approach it with the same closed-off suspicion. Despite wanting to throttle their families most of the time, they’re fiercely protective of them, and fully embedded in their respective communities. Both women are tough, sardonic, cynical, kind of scary, and devoted to their work.
There are differences. Sgt Cawood’s from Yorkshire and smokes cigarettes; Det. Sheehan is from Pennsylvania and vapes. The missing-girl cases they’re investigating aren’t the same deal, and neither is the custody case they’re fighting. There’s enough premise overlap though, for Happy Valley to have been come up in more than one Mare of Easttown review, and to inspire UK viewers to Google early on whether Brad Ingelsby’s HBO show was in fact a US remake of Sally Wainwright’s BBC drama.
Mare of Easttown is in no way a remake, but that wouldn’t have been out of the question. After the mammoth success of UK drama Broadchurch – another ‘everybody knows everybody’ small town crime mystery – FOX cut and pasted it to make Gracepoint. They took David Tennant into the bargain, giving him a US accent and an American co-star in Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn, leaving Olivia Colman behind to win an Oscar for Best Actress and the hearts of the nation. (When Gracepoint failed to set the world alight, it was precisely because it lacked the vital ingredient of Olivia Colman threatening to piss in a cup and throw it all over David Tennant.)
If not a remake, then Mare of Easttown certainly makes a good bedfellow with Happy Valley. It’s not only the lead characters’ similar family histories, but also the tragi-comic tone, which blends violence with absurdity and brightens dark corners with gallows humour. There’s love too, most of it expressed between women – in Happy Valley between Catherine and her recovering heroin addict sister Clare, and in Mare of Easttown between Mare and her best friend Lori, or townsfolk Dawn and Beth.
Both dramas are rooted in the economic realities of their respective towns, which are beset by drug problems. Happy Valley’s title comes from the nickname local police have given its West Yorkshire location of Calder Valley, on account of the amount of drugs that flow through it In the first series finale (there are two six-episode Happy Valley series so far, with a third and final planned), Catherine makes a speech indicting the illegal drug trade’s vampiric drain on broke towns, and on the people who live in them. As police officers, mothers and citizens, Mare and Catherine have to deal with the daily consequences of addiction, and both of their series has the political conscience to foreground the issue.
With excellent central performances, complex characters, strong scripts, lived-in settings, bleak naturalism and a gripping mystery to solve, in short, crime fans can’t go wrong with either. If you’re a Mare of Easttown fan yet to see Happy Valley or vice versa then, there’s no question what should be next on your to-watch list.
Happy Valley is available to stream in the UK on Britbox and to buy on Amazon Prime Video UK. Mare of Easttown airs on HBO in the US and on Sky Atlantic/NOW in the UK.