'After the Flood' is a Mystery Flowing Straight Outta 'Happy Valley'

Sophie Rundle as Joanna Marshall contemplates death, as Nicholas Gleaves as Sgt Phil Mackie, and Tripti Tripuraneni as Deepa look on in 'After the Flood'

Sophie Rundle as Joanna Marshall, Nicholas Gleaves as Sgt Phil Mackie, and Tripti Tripuraneni as Deepa in 'After the Flood'

QuayStreet Productions/ITV/BritBox

It’s very easy to be charmed by the over-ambitious BritBox thriller. It’s tough to pinpoint precisely when and how the implausible small-town crime saga became one of British TV’s most bankable returns on investment. However, British telly writers have many too-complicated-for-soaps storylines brewing in their heads. When deployed as winningly as After the Flood, it’s tempting to let them invent as many interchangeable Happy Valley derivatives as they want.

This series has a couple more tangible links to Sally Wainwright’s landmark, fan-favorite detective drama – Juliet Charlesworth produced both shows; Season 1 supporting actor Sophie Rundle (one of the first people to be killed on-camera by Tommy Royce) takes the lead as Jo Marshall, a pregnant constable training for detective duty; and our mystery once again takes place in gloomy Yorkshire, this time in the fictional and flood-prone Waterside. Thanks to its shared similar setting, tone, and frayed, misled suspects, After the Flood could, in another universe, be pitched as a spin-off limited series that network execs would instinctively commission off the back of Happy Valley – maybe with a guest appearance from Catherine Cawood as Jo’s old mentor or aunt during the flood crises in the opening and closing episodes. (These are free ideas, BritBox; take them or leave them.)

After the Flood lacks Happy Valley’s grounded approach to its multipronged story of trauma, revenge, and ego, with characters that superficially evoke the same warmth as Wainwright’s but without the earned, substantive empathy we feel for the Cawood clan. Instead, Jo and her family – her detective husband Pat (Matt Stokoe) and flood relief volunteer mother Molly (Lorraine Ashbourne) – feel more like navigators of the plot who occasionally break out in sighs, furrowed brows, and severe concern than actual lived-in characters. When an open-ended conclusion suggests a new chapter for Jo’s clan, it’s hard to imagine them existing outside of the rigid demands of the storyline.

Lorraine Ashbourne as Molly, Philip Glenister as Jack Radcliffe, and Jacqueline Boatswain as Sarah Mackie in 'After the Flood'

Lorraine Ashbourne as Molly, Philip Glenister as Jack Radcliffe, and Jacqueline Boatswain as Sarah Mackie in 'After the Flood'

(C) ITV Plc/BritBox

And yet, what a storyline! When a severe flood strikes Waterside, Jo witnesses a civilian leap into a gushing river to save a stranger’s baby before discovering a corpse hidden in the elevator of a disused office building – with blunt force trauma wounds to the head. After submitting the body’s DNA to an online ancestry website (illegally, as it’s a clear breach of Britain’s data privacy laws), Jo makes contact with Tasha Eden (Anita Adam Gabay), who identifies the body as her brother Daniel but is convinced he died five years ago.

What unfolds, at a notably good pace after the first couple of creaky episodes, is a hairbrained conspiracy that implicates nearly every public official and black market criminal in Waterside. Some key suspects to keep your eye on: Lee (Jonas Armstrong), the only person who admits to a connection to Daniel after his death; Jack Radcliffe (Philip Glenister), an amiable real estate developer who’s not-so-secretly a ruthless capitalist consolidating power; Sergeant Phil Mackie (Nicholas Gleaves), Jo’s old boss who she’s keen to keep her illicit investigation away from.

If we were to hazard a thematic analysis of After the Flood, we would say it’s a show about secrets, how deeply woven they can be in our everyday life, and how we must contend with essentially a whole new reality every time one gets out. The titular floods, a meteorological phenomenon that plagues many low-lying regions in Great Britain, act as a symbolic force, blowing Waterside’s calm wide open and leaving them to sort through the debris. 

Sophie Rundle as Jo Marshall coming up the stairs in 'After the Flood'

Sophie Rundle as Jo Marshall in 'After the Flood'

QuayStreet Productions/ITV/BritBox

By the time a second oncoming storm approaches in Episode 6, it’s sink or swim for our feuding conspirators – we’re leaning forward in our seats to see who will triumph in a malformed system. This analysis shouldn’t give the impression that After the Flood is in any way cerebral or literary, but the sheer melodrama of the busy crime plot unfolds means that the few scenes of flood-spectacle that open the series take on a symbolic tint as the story becomes more and more concerned with the past.

There’s the usual problem with TV mysteries – too many character names, always said in full, referring to people who aren’t on screen doing stuff we rarely see. But when After the Flood hits its stride in the second half, nearly every scene adds a new spin on the mystery and finds new ways to surprise. When the chips are on the table in the final episode, the whole cast brings out the Serious Crime Thriller Acting. While it doesn’t match the suspense and gravitas of the interrogation scenes of Line of Duty, they convincingly elevate the silliness of how ludicrous this small English town mystery has gotten. 

After the Flood is too limited in imagination to offer a substantial rebuttal to the police corruption themes it willingly brings up – remember, police corruption stories can also be copaganda by misrepresenting the offenses that happen in real life and implying that they’re betrayals of supposed virtuous police ethics. But it’s a predictable stumble for British broadcast television and excusable for a series that isn’t as deep as the flood that rages through the sleepy town. The levee will hold: After the Flood works.

The first two episodes of After the Flood debut on BritBox on Monday, May 13, 2024, with two episodes a week to follow on subsequent Mondays through the end of the month.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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