Until very recently, Mystery Drama were dirty words in TV talk; clichéd, repetitive series that seemed intent on treating the audience like idiots, more concerned with making them funny enough to be acceptable Sunday night entertainment. Then – straight from Denmark – came The Killing, whose success led to a stream of thrillers that dared to make the audience use their brains. Such shows proved there was a real want for intelligent TV that not only dealt with a central murder/mystery, but also confronted other identifiable issues that the audience could become emotionally involved in.
Top Of The Lake takes its cue from The Killing – a mystery focused on children that develops over the course of a single series and is investigated by a strong, central female character – but develops in to an eye-opening and original tale that emotionally captivates from the start. Created, written and partly directed by New Zealand born Jane Campion (whose credits include 1993s hauntingly beautiful The Piano), Top Of The Lake is a multi-stranded tale that explores themes of family dysfunction, lost adolescence and, most notably, the plight of the female gender.
Since its premier at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the critical reception to Top Of The Lake has been tremendously encouraging. The performances – some naturalistic, others terrifying – have been universally commended, with Elizabeth Moss’ Det. Robin Griffin & Peter Mullan’s Matt Mitcham receiving the bulk of the praise.
From the trailers alone though, what’s immediately striking is the New Zealand setting. The vast, desolate land that here hides so many secrets, has the majesty to captivate you instantly and never let go. It’s here again that Top Of The Lake will set itself apart from shows such as The Killing and, to a lesser extent, Broadchurch, whose city/town settings were never so sparse or mysterious.
The use of a single, driving narrative is what sets this new breed of Mystery Dramas apart from long running series such as Midsomer Murders & Waking the Dead, whose episodic mystery format had been the norm for far too long. It should allow a writer with Campion’s experience to develop fully formed characters that feel real and capture the audience’s attention. Although whether Det. Robin Griffin will have the congeniality, fortitude or jumper collection to make her a cult hit, like Sarah Lund, remains to be seen.
Weaving its story out over 7 parts and having already been a critical and commercial hit in the States, Australia and New Zealand, Top of the Lake will broadcast on BBC2 this summer. Mystery Drama fans rejoice; developed stories & engaging characters used to be the exception, but are gradually becoming the rule.