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Critic's Pick

TV picks: 'Happy Valley,' 'Sons of Anarchy,' and 'The Honorable Woman'

Television IndustryLaw EnforcementMaggie GyllenhaalSundance Film FestivalLea MicheleCastle (tv program)Sons of Anarchy (tv program)
'Happy Valley' gives us the best breakthrough TV cop since 'Prime Suspect'
The end is near for 'Sons of Anarchy' and is there any room at all for heroism?
It is not too late to catch up with 'The Honorable Woman' ... and you should!

The fall approaches, on little cat feet, so this is an excellent time to clear out the DVR, either by catching up or letting go (who's been recording all these "Castle" reruns anyway?) because things are about to get crazy. (For one thing, "Castle's back on Sept. 29; am assuming he survived the crash.)

If that's not enough, here are a few things to watch in "real" time:

"Happy Valley" -- I'm a bit late to the "Happy Valley" party, so I'll make up for it with over-the-top enthusiasm. This British cop drama is simply amazing, thrilling, touching, insightful and not just because Sarah Lancashire stars, although that is undeniably a huge part.

She plays Catherine Cawod, a police sergeant in Yorkshire still haunted by her daughter's suicide years earlier. Now divorced, Catherine is putting her life together with the help of her sister Clare (the equally wonderful Siobhan Finneran), a recovering heroin addict; together they are raising Catherine's grandson.

Meanwhile a "Fargo" (the movie)-like story line unfolds with a put-upon employee plotting the kidnapping of his boss' daughter. When news that the man Catherine believes led to her daughter's death has been released from prison, she becomes obsessed with bringing him to justice, and eventually the two crimes, old and new, overlap with tense and tragic results.

But "Happy Valley" is much more than a crime thriller. Sally Wainwright, my new favorite television writer, who also recently gave us the wise and romantic "Last Tango in Halifax" (with which "Happy Valley" shares the Yorkshire location) refuses to go for cheap theatrics or by-the-book drama. As in "Halifax," all the characters of "Happy Valley" are messy, multifaceted and heartbreakingly human. With her astonishing ability to blend steeliness with vulnerability, insight with emotional blindness, Lancashire helps create one of the most memorable breakthrough cops since Helen Mirren's Jane Tennison. Netflix, any time. 

"Sons of Anarchy" -- Kurt Sutter's biker gang drama enters its final season and it's out for blood, as the premiere episode makes abundantly clear. Undone by his wife Tara's brutal murder in last season's finale, Jax (Charlie Hunnam) has apparently given up all hope of ending the cycle of crime and violence to make life better for her boys. Which is probably a lost cause anyway, since they are in the care of Grandma Gemma (Katey Sagal), who, unknown to all but the unfortunate Juice (Theo Rossi), is the one who put a meat fork in Tara's head.

Instead, Jax spends the first hour grimly setting up an aging war power play that involves but is in no way limited to avenging Tara's death. Although all signs point to a fatalistic vision of annihilation over redemption, it's early days and one hopes Jax and some of the gang can find some measure of heroism before their story ends.

The appearance of Lea Michele in Episode 6 should be interesting but the truly torturous wait is for the scene in which Jax finds out what Gemma has done. (Meat fork, people.) It's difficult to imagine how Jax, Gemma or the viewers are going to survive that, but if anyone can pull it off it's Sagal. FX, Tuesdays, 10 p.m.

"The Honorable Woman" -- It is not too late to catch up with this stunning  exploration of conflict, both in the Middle East and within each of the well-drawn characters.

The child of a Holocaust survivor turned pro-Israeli arms manufacturer, Nessa Stein (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is attempting to steer her father's company in a different, more peace-seeking direction. Needless to say, this causes tension on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides of the issue, as well as revealing all manner of MI5/CIA political intrigue. And Nessa, though honorable to the point of obsessive, is not without her secrets.

In addition to being a politically provocative thriller, and a showcase for the brilliant Gyllenhaal, "The Honorable Woman" is a splendid example of the brave new world of television. All of the marvels of the genre’s Age of Exploration are at work here: The film star and flawless international cast, the eight-episode, international coproduction (Sundance and the BBC), the high-production location shots and gorgeous cinematography, the slow-reveal pace and political aspirations. They combine to make the series a thing of beauty that would not have existed 10, or even five years ago. Sundance, Thursdays, 10 p.m.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Television IndustryLaw EnforcementMaggie GyllenhaalSundance Film FestivalLea MicheleCastle (tv program)Sons of Anarchy (tv program)
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