Peggy Olson? Sexual brutality with panoramic views? Chuck in a couple of “winter is coming”s and you’ve got the perfect confluence of televisual cool. Elisabeth Moss (for it is she) is Robin Griffin, a police detective recently returned to New Zealand (implicitly from America, a hand wave that’s been used to cover dodgy accents before). She’s only meant to be visiting, but is called in to help investigate the rape and impregnation of a 12 year old girl.
It’s a provocative opening of the sort the genre loves: Top Of The Lake may be set in New Zealand, but nordic noir is the template. The cool pallets, the dispassionate direction and, of course, the violence. Since Stieg Larsson, crime dramas have been keen to make a claim for literary worth by confronting us with society’s underbelly.
More than Moss, though, it’s the landscape that’s the lead character. Almost every shot is framed to show us the immense emptiness of the mountains. As mobile phones and the internet bind us ever tighter together, fiction has to travel further out to find those frontiers where the savage world can still be seen.
The landscape, untouched by man, plays into the primacy of the characters’ actions: the disconcerting notion that our advances are driven by the same impulses that made Caveman 1 smash Caveman 2’s head against a rock so he could cop off with his girlfriend. Dark deeds are still done among the mountains, but psychopaths and paedophiles are our modern dragons.
The shooting of the dog underlines the metro-centric aspect of latter-day noir. Anyone who’s grown up around farms will know a lot of death goes into keeping things alive – something urbanised society has trouble with, despite its dependence on it. Let’s talk about misogyny and child abuse, but let’s also talk about Straw Dogs and The Wicker Man. Our nightmares don’t paint us in the best light.
The playing of the feminist commune for laughs is a misstep. By treating misogyny with such levity – if only for a few scenes – the show puts a pike through any atmosphere it’s built up. There’s a reason there are no knob jokes in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
The casting of Moss, the premier at the Sundance Film Festival, and the BBC Two slot have given Top Of The Lake greater prominence than many new crime dramas. But those of us used to finding our Saturday night slashers on BBC Four – and who will, presumably, be the core audience – have high standards. Top Of The Lake will need to even out its tone or it’ll disappear back into the crowded bustle of modern-day noir.