There is officially too much TV. From Breaking Bad to Boardwalk Empire, because we’re spoilt for choice, the good’uns can often pass you by. In order to truly get the value out of your Netflix (or Amazon Prime Instant Video) subscription, you’d need to quit your job and spend your life in front of the screen.
Watching a good TV series requires commitment and dedication to keep your brain in it when all you really want to do at the end of a long day is watch Gossip Girl for the millionth time and let your brain go to sleep.
But being Mad Men fans, when we heard about Elisabeth ‘Peggy’ Moss’ starring in Jane Campion’s Top Of The Lake, we bookmarked the series to see what the fuss was about. And boy, were we glad we did.
Now, with the finale having wowed Beeb audiences, Top of the Lake is on Netflix UK and Amazon Prime Instant Video. In honour of the programme’s six episodes, here are six reasons why you need to stream this show now.
1. Elisabeth Moss
Already a fan of Moss’ work as Peggy Olson, we were keen to see her given the chance to step out of her Mad Men outfits, throw on some walking boots and pick up a gun. As Detective Robin Griffin, returning to her family home of Lake Top to nurse her sick mother, she is called in to assist on the unorthodox and highly sensitive case of a pregnant 12-year-old girl, Tui Mitcham.
Moss’s particular skill at conveying so much with a single expression (her luminous eyes emit everything from rage and trauma to even occasional happiness) is utilised well as she remains stoic and impassive, only crumbling as revelation upon revelation is heaped upon her – before rising up to kick some ass and take some names. It’s a brilliant performance by Moss and worthy of whatever award nominations she’ll surely gain.
2. Peter Mullan
The Walter White of the piece (hello Breaking Bad fans), Peter Mullan plays a ruthless kingpin both of the Mitcham clan and his own underground drug empire. The diabolic overlord of Lake Top is established early on as the unsympathetic villain of the piece, his private feud with the local hippy commune setting up camp in his family seat (amusingly named ‘Paradise’) on the banks of the water.
For a chap insisting so strongly on his heritage, the fact that Mullan sports a strong Scottish accent throughout is confusing at best, but Mullan counteracts our doubt by bringing layers and complexity to the character of Matt Mitcham. Is he the father of his daughter’s baby? Is she aware of who is? Why his strange fascination with Robin? Like Moss, Mullan’s character’s motives are slowly unveiled with aching precision by the actor.
3. Holly Hunter
If you haven’t seen The Piano (like this writer – Editor), you will only know the mythology of Hunter’s association with Campion’s work. But if this is the only experience you get of Hunter’s on-screen acting, you’ll be more than satisfied. Her performance, as the mysterious and charismatic GJ, the leader-cum-shaman of the Paradise commune, is haunting and profound. Her character is rare and fleeting on screen, but barks profound revelations at every turn – and blasts her co-stars off the screen.
“You people all want to help someone. Help yourself first! Like the airplane; put on your own mask first!” she commands a broken Robin as she looks for guidance in her continued quest to help Tui. (Her sheet of grey hair has already been referenced in a trends article in the Evening Standard, making Robin’s preference for Ugg boots look even more laughable.)
4. New Zealand
One of the main reasons we sat through The Hobbit was the promise of more of the gorgeous country featured in Lord of the Rings. Top of the Lake picks up right where Peter Jackson left off: Campion creates a love letter to the landscape, with long lingering tracking shots of the dramatic hills surrounding Lake Top overlaid with a simple, melancholic score.
They partner beautifully and add to the open sense of isolation felt by Robin, and Tui, as they continue in their separate missions; the lush, beautiful grenery juxtaposes with the bleakness of Matt’s mission to find Tui and find the inner peace he mysteriously craves. The lake itself features heavily; a metaphor for the secrets buried beneath the surface of every character, some of whom repeatedly baptise themselves in it.
5. Serious soap opera
Looking back on it, the sheer ridiculousness of Top of the Lake’s plot overwhelms. From pregnant pre-pubescents and drug lords in Barbour jackets to an underground orgy ring, the plot is straight out of the very worst soap operas. But in the hands of Campion, a story that wheels from one routine point (teen rape, corrupt cops, etc) to the next is convincing and gripping.
The excellent ensemble can definitely take some credit here; David ‘Faramir’ Wenham’s cop leader Al and Thomas M Wright as Robin’s childhood flame Johnno both impress – but the fierce uncompromising way Campion shoots and tells her story dares you to challenge it.
6. The female touch
The Bechdel Test states that, to pass, a piece of fiction must contain an incident of two female characters talking to each other about something that isn’t a man. While the women at Paradise are there to seek refuge from bad relationships, and Robin’s trauma stems from a similar root, the central struggles focus less on the cause of their backstories, and more on their responses; not what is done to them, but how they handle it.
As a result, the story is very female-driven; Matt, Al, Johnno et al’s own agendas interlace, but the control is in the hands of Robin as to how events will run – a mirror for the lessons GJ is trying to teach her traumatised charges about their recovery. Gradually, this unlocks the drama to allow a far more emotional output from all the characters – see Matt’s tears over his dead mother – that transcends what is traditionally a very macho genre. A potency is added to the drama that feels all the more credible, from both the male and female characters.
The result is a devastating, uncompromising, confusing and intriguing drama that’s well worth taking a Sunday afternoon off from watching House of Cards to see.
Top of the Lake Season 1 is available on BBC iPlayer until 6th August, when episodes will begin to be removed daily. It is also available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
Where can I watch Top of the Lake online on pay-per-view VOD?
Photo: BBC/See Saw Films/Parisa Taghizadeh