I finally tuned in to watch Top of the Lake last night, Jane Campion’s new six-part drama for the BBC. I knew it was going to be good, but blow me down, I didn’t know it’d be that good. After an hour of pure unadulterated enjoyment, I got to thinking: why do we need great dramas on our telebox? And more specifically: what is it about Top of the Lake that has got it just right?
I like Jane Campion, and her oddball, muted, family-writ-large take on filmmaking and art. Being a copywriter by trade, and mad about Mad Men, I also adore Elisabeth Moss, the lead actress who plays Robin, the detective. And while we’re on the subject, me and box sets, we’re like that. Specifically: Mad Men, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Curb… and errr, True Blood. For a series or two. And homegrown dramas don’t get much better than The Hour. So far, so good.
The opening scenes of episode one of Top of the Lake were filled with artistic risk as well as promise. Painterly scenes of extreme natural beauty navigated by humans who were as disturbed as the surroundings were unknowable. The threat of suicide, violence, and weirdness – one of the hardest things of all for many viewers to accept straight up. Taboos and archetypes, subversion of the natural order of things, a bent copper and a cultish overlord. A woman representing justice, facing obstacles, but following intuition and battling her own complicated past. And then, undeniably, the nod to Twin Peaks and Lynch.
So why is Top of the Lake so gloriously unturnoffable? I’d wager that it’s down to the power of its story. Co-written by Jane Campion and Gerard Lee, Campion talks about the co-writing process here. I also think our appetite for offbeat crime is at an all-time high, thanks to those clever Scandinavian noir writers. Top of the Lake is a whodunnit at heart, that specialises in subcultures peopled by richly-painted characters. Each character has a past, or the potential of a past that you can’t wait to find out about. The landscapes of New Zealand’s south island make you gasp. Plus they’re a battleground. The societal transgressions portrayed will be dealt with by a few different kinds of law. Hugely strong wills will clash in ways you don’t expect. Conflict between two tribes, divided by gender lines.
But let’s get back to where I started. What is it about watching a currently-airing drama, that’s so different to bedding down with a box-set? In this asynchronous on-demand age, why should when and how an episode’s aired matter? For me, it absolutely does. The idea of ‘event’ television or drama is still important. Of building an audience through building suspense and creating a shared viewing experience. I don’t know why, but I do still feel that 80’s child magic of watching a drama, a film or a documentary on TV that airs in a particular time slot. Hell, I’m all for gorging on box sets like the next person: hit me with the next episode! Another, and another! But what do you MEAN it’s finished? And yet I can’t help but feel that tuning in, together as a nation, once a week, to a programme you are very much looking forward to teaches us an all-round commendable lesson: in art, as in life, good things are worth waiting for. (And sharing).
The verdict on Top of the Lake? That’s me, all summer. Hooked till September. When’s episode two?