Top of the Lake – Pilot
The new cop in town gets caught up in an increasingly complex case with ties to her past that threatens to tear down the town in which it occurred, you’ve seen it before, right? Sure this sort of serialised suspense story is nothing new – The Killing is the obvious comparison and it was already a rather derivative drama, and Broadchurch is currently delivering one of the better examples of it – but the way that Top of the Lake tells its tropic tale is dangerously and disconcertingly original. For one the mystery that it is built around is not a murder, not the ending of a life but the making of one: a reclusive twelve year old girl is revealed to be pregnant, the paternity of her progeny is then the crime that must be solved, a case that is uniquely as concerned with the present and future of its victim as it is their past.
The person best suited to solving such a crime is a young, empathetic detective played by Peggy, ahem played by Elizabeth Moss, who is in town on private business but volunteers based on her experiences in the field. The ABC pulled their funding from this series on the announcement that Elizabeth Moss would play the lead which based on what i’ve seen was about as big a mistake as a network could make. Lake Top, the small New Zealand town in which this show is set, is about as far from Mad Men‘s Manhattan as you can get both geographically and stylistically and yet she slots herself into its adulterous world as well as anyone could; even adorning a local accent with more aplomb than our actors tend to an American one. Though her character is still somewhat ambiguous Moss is what makes the show watchable; she as much as writer/director Jane Campion is the woman at the core of this story.
Thanks to Campion there is a tone to Top if the Lakethat distinguishes it from a simple re-dubbing of existing series but it may not be the one that casual fans of her cinema expect. Last seen directing one of her bigger and better received features Bright Star, a Keats biopic, Campion has the reputation of being a bit of a poet herself, for constructing beautiful, lavish and freely flowing romantic films. Top of the Lake though is much more reminiscent of her earlier, edgier work, of the jagged and jarring social stories that she shot in her home country of New Zealand and the tense thrillers that she shot elsewhere, like In the Cut. It isn’t a show that you savour, its one you struggle to stomach, primarily because it is so much like real life.
This verisimilitude is really what makes the show so unsettling. Those grand gothic mysteries that we see in the states and on the BBC that end in the unmasking of some complex and charismatic genius undercut their impact with such melodrama but there is a mundanity to the evil here that makes its sins so much more haunting. These people act with an absence of malice and an ignorance of impact, ruining lives with no regard because their own are already so ragged. These are the kind of people who kill a man half for the comedy of it and half because saving him would cop them shit, what with giving a man CPR coming across as gay to such minds. The latent evil residing in the heart of the common man is terrifying to behold.
The one area in which I struggled somewhat with the show is the way in which it seemed to be saying that such evil exists only in the heart of man, that the finer sex was maybe free of it. Every male character we meet is shown to in some way to be a misogynist, a Mis-treater of women, and this is turn leaves the show in a somewhat misandrous position. More troubling still is the way in which the women are portrayed, one of the primary sets for the show is an impromptu shelter set up right by the lake on a piece of land called paradise and here we hear from a number of broken and beaten women all of whom are victims pining for the possibility of returning to their abusive husbands, veiling in their victimhood.
Here, in the stories sexual politics, is where the shows serialisation becomes important. Campion is accustomed to cinema and is said to have treated this series like it were simply a very long film which means that she would only have been thinking about its impact as a whole which I cannot do having only seen this single piece. So there is every chance that the progression of the shows arc will serve to elucidate these important and very potent areas: Holly Hunter’s very compelling character, the androgynously alien leader of the women’s commune, is an example in that she seems set-up to either fix the women she is working with and Moss’ detective who ends the episode being brought down by yet another vealer abuse could well serve as an alternative to them but it is a precarious paths that the show has set off on here and I can’t predict how it will fare travelling down it, which is why I am worried.
This was a show that I was set to watch from its conception, the names and concepts simply enough on their own to sell me but there is something far more fascinating than I expected about what it has formed into. Alongside all those A-grade actors – I am yet to even mention David Wenham despite my love for the man – and the behind the screen team are these little things that simply cannot be captures in a synopsis, things that scare me somewhat : characters who creep me out but capture my attention entirely, locations that look at once dreary and dreamlike, an air of realism swirled with these tinges of realised imagination and comedy that comes from the most caustic of sources. Thanks to these Top of the Lake is not just compelling, its also challenging television; taking what we know and want from such series and subverting it in ways that no one else would ever dare. If you watch one local drama this year it should be this, if only to show the ABC.