Top of the Lake review – Episode One – BBC2

Top of the LakeFemale lead crime dramas seem to be all the rage these days, what with The Killing and The Fall and, now, Top of the Lake, a New Zealand filmed, transatlantic production that has already been broadcast in the US and in the antipodes down south. The BBC sat on the show for such a long time that I was worried it might be very problematic, but it got decent reviews from our English-speaking cousins and this first episode was intriguing and interesting enough.

Top of Lake is set in New Zealand’s South Island, a sparsely populated (77% of New Zealand’s population live on the northern island) and mountainous region whose stunning geography was used to great effect in the Lord of Rings films. Into this location comes Robin Griffin, a detective returned to her home town after living in Australia, who begins investigating the abuse of a 12-year-old pregnant child, and her disappearance at the episode’s conclusion.

Robin is played by Elizabeth Moss, best known for playing Peggy in Mad Men. Moss is outstanding in that American show, portraying one of the best female characters on television. In Top of the Lake, playing, as in Mad Men, a strong woman in a world dominated by men, she brings an ability to convey both strength and vulnerability with a subtlety that stops the character from becoming either off-puttingly aggressive or a clichéd weak female.

This show is filled with award-winning talent, including Academy Award winner Helen Hunt and multi-award winning Scottish actor and director Peter Mullan. The former of those actors plays a guru-like head of a women’s refuge. She is a pretty annoying character and the refuge stuff seemed a little forced and self-consciously ‘funny’ and ‘weird.’ Peter Mullan was better, as Matt Mitcham, the aggressive and presumably criminal owner of the land adjoining the refuge, and the father of Tui, the pregnant girl who goes missing. Some of the strongest scenes in the episode involved Matt and his two lap-dog sons unintentionally killing the man who sold the women’s refuge their land. It speaks to the quality of the writing – and acting – that I cared about a character that was introduced and then killed five minutes later.

The same could be said about Tui. Normally in a mystery show such as this, the missing child or person is what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin, a plot device and nothing more. But this first episode made an effort to make Tui a rounded character that the audience would care about. Presented at first as a vulnerable and abused child, she was shown later in the episode stronger and self-sufficient, riding a horse through the mountains with a gun strapped to her back. She might still end up as nothing but a driver of the plot, discarded after this first episode, but at least there was some attempt to create a lasting character.

Tui Top of the LakeThere are though a number of problems with the show. It is, for instance, very slow. That seems to be a thing these days, presumably a reaction against the pressure on filmmakers to make everything exciting. But slowness just for the sake of it is just as bad as an unnecessary pressure for pace. It is worrying for instance that the AV Club’s review of episode one and two of this show contains no new information or spoilers for the second episode. I get the impression that I could skip entire episodes of Top of the Lake and miss nothing.

It is also kind of clichéd at times – the trope of the outsider cop for instance, or the protagonist returning to her provincial hometown – and it is a little too focused on geography and atmosphere at the expense of plot.

That said, I like Top of the Lake so far. I enjoy TV shows and films that introduce me to new places, and I like this beautiful mountainous region with its backwater-like towns and country. The mystery at the heart of the show is intriguing, and I really like Elizabeth Moss and welcome the opportunity to see her in another TV show. I’m not exactly hooked, but I’m interested to see how things develop in the next episode.

Random notes:

  • Not sure about Moss’ accent, it seemed a little off to me.
  • The scene where Matt shot the dog was good; an excuse for him to intimidate Robin in a way in which she couldn’t really protest much (as opposed to, say, directly threatening her).
  • I’m guessing that Robin was raped at some point in the past, judging from the scene in the woods between her and Johnno.
  • Feminism and the role and struggles of women in society seems to be the major theme in the show.
  • I really like TV shows and films that put a lot into building an atmosphere, and the strange location and noir-like tone in this show is something that should hopefully be really enjoyable throughout.
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