Top of the Lake serious, but impressive

Last updated 10:08 26/03/2013

Most of the pre-air buzz around Top of the Lake, which started last night on UKTV, has surrounded New Zealand's own Jane Campion, the Wellington-born, Oscar-nominated director of The Piano, who co-wrote the series with Australian writer Gerard Lee. But while Campion's first foray into serial television definitely bears a couple of her trademarks, I think it takes more of its cues from the recent spate of AMC dramas.

(Warning: spoilers from Top of the Lake's first episode follow.)

In fact, the closest comparison for Top of the Lake might be AMC's failed police drama The Killing*, which followed an unlikely pair of detectives as they investigate the murder of a girl that ends up involving an entire community: a single case that spans a season, characters who rarely (if ever) smile, a level of intensity that seems out of place, lingering camera shots, and a sparse soundtrack.

20130326The Killing - like other AMC dramas Mad Men, Hell on Wheels and The Walking Dead - also takes itself, and its story matter, overly seriously, which is another trait shared with Top of the Lake. Humourlessness isn't a bad thing. In fact, given what we're about to dive into here, it is probably the best way forward.

Mad Men star Elisabeth Moss plays Robin, a detective on a trip home from Sydney who teams up with a local cop (David Wenham) and gets embroiled in the pregnancy (and, as of the final scene last night, suspected disappearance) of a 12-year-old girl named Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe, marvellous in her first screen role) who tries to kill herself by wading into a freezing lake in the opening act.

Tui belongs to a well-known local crime family, led by patriarch Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), whose introduction to viewers consists of throwing a real estate agent into the lake as punishment for selling a prized piece of land to a commune following the direction of mysterious GJ (Holly Hunter).

We didn't get far into the ongoing storyline (or, at least, what I assume will be the ongoing storyline) around Tui's disappearance, but the opening episode made it clear that this is a serious show. And in the few moments of characterisation we got, it was clear that every character has a serious back story.

Fortunately, the actors in those major roles have come to play: Moss does a solid job in the main role, even if her accent jumps the Tasman more times than a Super Rugby team, and Mullan is a revelation as the villainous Mitcham. It's nice to see plenty of familiar faces, too - Thomas M Wright, Kip Chapman and Jay Ryan stand out.

The show is beautiful to look at. Campion and crew picked a naturally picturesque spot and have made full use of its serene surroundings, barraging us with shots of mist rising from the glassy lake, or wide shots of golden fields. The colours are slightly washed out, sucking the vibrancy out of the picture and reinforcing the slower (lifeless?) pace Campion is trying to portray. It's not Lord of the Rings-level gorgeous, but it's beautiful in its own way.

However, there are a few strange things about Top of the Lake - not Twin Peaks strange (I don't think Peaks is a good comparison for this show at all; Lake has none of the quirks or genre-busting appeal that Peaks had/still has), but odd decisions made during the production phase.

Like, in a show that has hired American actors to play roles (for example, the American-accented Holly Hunter who plays an American-accented character), why did Campion hire Robyn Malcolm - a Kiwi - to play an American-accented character? I have nothing against Malcolm, just find it strange to use a Kiwi when an American would have been fine.

Also, why is the only Maori character violent? I was excited to see Calvin Tuteao, but less excited when I realised he was the only Maori character in a show set in New Zealand and his character was suspected of domestic abuse. Surely Campion could've just had Temuera Morrison play Jake The Muss and really committed to it, right?

Last, I can't put my finger on it, but there just seems something off with the way the town, and its people, are portrayed. It's set in New Zealand but it isn't quite New Zealand-like to watch. As Throng pointed out yesterday, Top of the Lake was part-funded by Screen Australia and produced by an Australian production company - maybe the problem is that Top of the Lake portrays what Australians think rural New Zealand is like?

Still, those are minor - albeit troubling - complaints. After a single episode, Top of the Lake is serious about its content, has a stack of performers to sell it, and is high-quality in terms of production value. And even if it isn't quite New Zealand, it's at least a showcase for our country and some of our talent. I'll be watching next week.

Did you watch the first episode of Top of the Lake? What did you think?

(*) I'm using the term "failed" rather loosely: the show was cancelled after two subpar, badly received seasons, but was revived this year for a third season. Production on the third season started last month.

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