Channel: BBC Two
Recurring cast: Elizabeth Moss, Dominic Wenham, Peter Mullan, Thomas M. Wright, Jacqueline Joe and Holly Hunter
The BBC likes its dark dramas. In some cases, they appear to be working under the notion of: ‘the darker the better’. It is trains of thought like this that ruins good premises like Top of the Lake.
The premise, and in all honesty, initial episode are good. It is set in a small town in Australia, where city cop, Robin Griffin, is visiting her dying mother. While there she is drawn into a case of a twelve year old girl who winds up pregnant. She convinces the incompetent town police to let her take over the case, which needs her delicate touch, especially when that twelve year old girl, Tui, disappears overnight. Adding to the problem is Tui’s abusive father, who murders a local estate agent and begins a feud with the feminist camp that has set up shop on ‘his’ land. The first episode ends and we are relatively impressed. We are introduced to good characters, given a gripping mystery and the tone seems right.
Leading the cast is Elizabeth Moss, who walks around the beautiful set-pieces like a shell-shocked soldier. Her eyes are constantly conveying her tragic backstory, which deepens each episode, and she is a refreshing change of pace for a protagonist. I was also pleased to see Dominic Wenham portraying a relatively normal character – or at least not a bumbling monk or Gondor soldier. He is impressive here, as the chief police who could know more about Tui’s disappearance than he is letting on. Peter Mullan plays his usual nasty character, taking this role to new extremes. It’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before, but for the most part, he is a comfortable fit for the show (once you’ve gotten over his Scottish accent in the middle of Aussie voices). Rounding up the cast is powerhouse actress Holly Hunter, given cryptic dialogue as the head of the feminist camp, barking across her lines with terrifying brilliance.
Sadly, as soon as the first episode ends, we are treated to several failed promises. It gets too lost in its dreary tone and it becomes a struggle to tune in. Writer Jane Campion runs out of steam with the investigation and ends up writing in several sub-plots, to the point where sometimes we forget that there is a pregnant child out there somewhere. Each of the feminists get storylines that get dropped as soon as there is no longer a need to waste time. Lucy Lawless appears for a token part. Worst of all, Robin’s romantic partner, Johnno, is one of the least compatible love interests on TV. It is hard to see what Robin sees in him. Then we get the boring waves of exposition and surreal sequences. One moment in the third episode where Peter Mullan and a date get high on pills and run through the woods is almost embarrassing. There are a lot of moments, where you feel embarrassed for the actors taking part. One moment asks Elizabeth Moss to lie down on the floor like a cat and Jacqueline Joe’s Tui is often asked to snarl like a wolf. It’s cringe-worthy.
The most frustrating thing is the potential. The feminists are annoying yes, but you feel like Campion is building up to something. Maybe there’s a conspiracy with Tui and the female camp. But no, nothing really ever happens there to the point where they just becoming a pointless distraction. Holly Hunter deserved so much better here. They even ruin the anti-men theme that Campion seems to enjoy. Most of the men in the story are abusive and sexually-orientated. Fair enough, if you want to write about that sort of thing, but the women who break free from men and flee to the feminist camps are such bumbling fools, you don’t really feel like praising your inner woman either. It is almost as though the only character we are meant to side with is Robin and she gets so depressing from the midway of the series onwards that you kind of want to spend time away from her.
When it reveals what happens to Tui, the action continues for another episode. Sure, there are some loose ends to tie up, but there isn’t that driving force keeping you hooked anymore. I guess it ends well enough, but you have lost all compassion for the characters and plot. I think the writers assume their story is more compelling than it actually is. The final twenty minutes are quite entertaining and interesting, but at the same time, they felt added on. Robin notices something on a wall she has passed several times this season and we are expected that she has only just managed to click the pieces together. Stellar detective work there.
Final verdict: After an entertaining start, the series descends into a mind-numbingly dull narrative, with little reason to stay tuned. Poor.