Public Service Announcement 30 of 2017: Top Of The Lake – China Girl; Ozark; Midnight, Texas; The Last Tycoon

I’m in two minds about whether to watch the second season of Top Of The Lake, because I was in two minds about the first one: amazing scenery, amazing Elizabeth Moss, and a decent enough procedural struggling to get out; but overlong and unhelpfully pretentious as well, particularly that commune living in the shipping containers. Season 2 relocates the action to Sydney, and adds Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie, while – crucially – retaining Moss, who even in a crowded marketplace has genuine claims to be one of the very best TV actors of her generation. The first episode is being shown on broadcast TV, and immediately thereafter the whole thing will be on the iPlayer to (ew) “binge”, which I suppose is in line with current viewing trends, but makes it less likely that people will be talking about it (tonight, 9pm, BBC Two).

Netflix’s latest is the interesting-sounding Ozark, in which Jason Bateman plays a financial advisor who has been laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel, and who suddenly finds that there is a pressing need for him to relocate from Chicago to a summer resort in the Missouri Ozarks with his wife Laura Linney. It’s been reasonably well-received, and were I not so busy I might be tempted to give this a go (available now).

I’m less interested in Midnight, Texas, which seems to be some supernatural nonsense based on some novels by Charlaine Harris, the author behind True Blood. Commendably, we’re only a few days behind American transmission, so well done Syfy UK; unfortunately, the reviews suggest that it may only be of interest to those who are, well, interested in this sort of thing. Which I’m not (tonight, 9pm, Syfy UK).

And I’m unable to see Amazon’s The Last Tycoon, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished last novel, and starring the unfairly handsome Matt Bomer, who is Unpopcult royalty and our CJ’s future husband, did he but know it. Kelsey Grammar and the wonderful Rosemarie DeWitt are also in the cast. Unfortunately the critics, overall, haven’t been particularly impressed by this either (tomorrow, Amazon Prime).

Top of the Lake ep 6

Matt decides that it’s time to tell Robin that he’s her biological father, a would-be shocking twist which was telegraphed a couple of episodes ago when Robin’s mother implored her to stop seeing Johnno. But without telling her why, of course, because that would be too straightforward. This has two immediate consequences: it spikes her investigation into Matt, because even in Al’s police station daughters can’t investigate fathers. It also puts the brakes on her relationship with Johnno, now revealed to be her half-brother. Fair play to Robin: she’s not above a little incestuous fumbling with Johnno, although it does put him off his stroke a bit.

So with love life in turmoil, career going down the tubes, and teenage gang-rape trauma replaying itself in her mind, where does Robin go for advice? Of course. The Sisterhood of the Shipping Containers, and specifically to GJ. “Be like a cat”, counsels the wise one. “Heal yourself”. Oh piss off. GJ herself seems to be planning her next scam: checking up on her investments and booking a flight to Reykjavík. “Just get me”, she demands, “away from these crazy bitches”. Well, GJ, you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, and thus far you’ve been the former.

Anyway, Tui? The pregnant 12-year-old alone in the wilderness? Anyone interested?  Anyone? Her existence is remembered around halfway through the episode, but the only person anywhere near when she gives birth is crazy old derelict Putty, precisely the man you’d want to be on the towels and hot water detail. Despite that it all seems to go OK, although there are clear signs as the episode winds to a close that no-one’s too interested in Noah, the baby; certainly not the mother.

As for the father? Well, Al says that a DNA test reveals it to be Matt; by then, conveniently dead. But Robin has a moment of revelation when contemplating photos of the kids involved in that creepy accredited barista training scheme thingy, and heads off to Al’s lakeside pad, where she finds proof – including the bottle with the handwritten “ROOFIES” label, perhaps the most risibly clunky thing I’ve ever seen in a TV drama with pretensions to be more than a procedural – that he’s been running a child sex ring out of his basement. And there we pretty much are: one of the abusers was the father of Tui’s baby; Robin and Johnno probably aren’t related after all, although you’d think they probably don’t want to catch each others’ eye during intimate moments; and barista training can have its drawbacks.

What Top of the Lake all added up to was a show unlike anything else on TV, which I mean in a good and bad way. I’m speculating here, but I’d guess that Jane Campion was allowed to pretty much go her own way when making Top of the Lake, and what we got was more or less the realisation of a singular vision. It seems to have worked for a lot of people, but I’d have enjoyed it more, I think, in a trimmed-down form; there was a tightly-drawn three- or four-part drama trying to get out, but that clearly wasn’t the show that Campion wanted to make. Big wins, though, for Elisabeth Moss and the scenery.

Top of the Lake ep 5

Even at this late stage – one episode to go after this one – I’m still not at all sure what I make of Top of the Lake. I’d have to concede, though, that every now and again it can generate a weird power; the last scenes, for instance, with the funeral of a fairly important character soundtracked by a rather lovely cover of Björk’s ‘Jóga’ were genuinely moving.

I started the episode, though, irritated and slightly ashamed of it. Jamie – he of the yes/no hands – is being interviewed after being arrested for shoplifting; Robin correctly assumes that he’s taking food to Tui, crisps and shit being ideal for pregnant adolescents. Robin, with her fancy training, gets nowhere during an interview, and I was kind of losing patience myself. We know he can talk, I thought, so frankly it’s just an affectation, and when Al wades into the room vowing zero tolerance for the “hand flapping”, I was entirely on board. Yes, no doubt he’s damaged/traumatised/whatever, but come on. Unfortunately, though, instead of just giving him a straightforward kicking Al humiliates him, shifting my sympathy back to the deeply disturbed teenager, where perhaps it should have been all along.

But, yes, Tui is alive, and being sustained by, I dunno, biscuits and the like procured by Jamie and others. And it was immensely touching to see Tui with her friends, behaving like the schoolgirl she is, rather than seeing her through the prism of a couple of aloof-looking photos and the knowledge that she’s pregnant. She makes the mistake of going to the Sisterhood of the Shipping Containers for ob/gyn advice: “Follow the body”, burbles GJ. “It’ll know what to do”. Which, given that she’s bleeding, is perhaps less than Tui needs at this juncture. She’s not even sure how the baby was conceived, although Jamie claims that it’s the progeny of “The Dark Creator”, whoever that is. Next week, I assume.

Robin’s having problems with the increasingly high-maintenance Johnno, who from where I’m watching isn’t that much of a catch. Holiday romance, surely, Rob, even though Johnno’s starting to fret about their future together. She’s also wondering about Al’s relationship with the Mitchams, given that he’s in a multi-million dollar lakeside house, and that Matt can turn up when she and Al are on a boat in the middle of the lake. And – lending weight to the suggestion of a child sex ring in the area – she’s seen pictures, on Bob Platt’s computer, of what looks like an orgy   But her priority for the moment is the need to find Tui, and in that she’s up against Matt and his expanded team of trackers. Which leads to the unexpected tragedy that ends the episode; unexpected for me, anyway. It’s a singular show, and it’s not without its problems, but from time to time it can hit home.

Top of the Lake ep 4

Much better than last week’s, thank God. For one thing, the Sisterhood of the Shipping Containers doesn’t turn up until we’re about two-thirds of the way in, by which time the Sisters can irritate but can’t blow the whole episode off course.

Not that there is, yet, too much of a course. Robin has been stood down by Al – she’s a cop, so there’s the obligatory shot of her handing over her badge and gun – but in truth the investigation into the disappearance of Tui hasn’t really got any further forward for a while now, and ceased to be the focus of the show round about the second episode. So that side of things needs some sort of external impetus to get it started again and it comes from Ian Fellows, a pathologist (I thought he said that he was the pathologist of Macau – can that be right?) who is concerned about three deaths which seem to him to have been brushed under the carpet. Two – estate agent Bob Platt and local nonce Wolfgang – we already know about; the third, a 13-year-old girl who walked in front of a car in an apparent suicide, is new to us, but given the presence of cocaine on her, um, “person”, one can see why Fellows is concerned about it.

We also discover from the widow Platt (Lucy Lawless) that Bob saw something horrendous in town before his death, to the point where he was intent on leaving. There are hints, I suppose, that there’s some sort of child sex ring in the area, but nothing as yet has been established.

Robin is continuing to pursue her sort-of relationship with Johnno, although her mother begs her to call it off, for reasons we aren’t told. Johnno is still suffering from guilt as a result of the rape of Robin; he was there that night, and thinks he could have done more to prevent it, although from what we know that seems unrealistic. Robin then wonders whether he was in some way complicit, which enrages him; they later make up, though, in the woods. By chance, a couple of trackers hired by Matt Mitcham to find Tui are there to take some photos of the happy event. It looked quite chilly, I thought.

While juggling that, Robin still has Al to cope with: out of nowhere he proposes marriage to her, but using the sort of language which makes it all sound somewhat creepy; either she (his “angel”) is saving him, or the other way round. I’m not seeing Al or Johnno as much of a choice, frankly, but as she now seems to have broken off her engagement back in Sydney she may be reassessing her taste in men anyway.

At least, though, the Tui investigation is starting to move front and centre again. Robin interviews Jamie, a generally silent teenager who has a room full of bones, and has written “NO” on the palm of one of his hands, which he flashes in response to questions. I’d have been clattered for that sort of behaviour at his age. It turns out, though, that quite a few of the local kids are doing the same. Weird. Well, I say weird, but perhaps it’s a thing and I just don’t know about it, like training troubled kids to be baristas.

And Matt’s trackers, as well as photos of Johnno and Robin doing the goose-pimpled nasty, seem to have photos of Tui wandering in and out of what looks like a woodland hideaway. (Robin has to process this news at the same time as finding out about the death of her mother.) But with two episodes to go that can’t be all there is to it, presumably. I’m more optimistic about the show after this episode, but there’s a lot of work to be done.

Top of the Lake ep 3

The second half of this episode was OK. Not great, but OK. The Tui investigation was moved offstage, drawing little more than passing mentions (and the beginnings of Robin’s Conspiracy Wall). Robin has concluded that Tui was raped by multiple assailants, because she herself – big reveal which was no surprise at all, really – was subjected to a similar assault when she was 15, resulting in a daughter given away for adoption. Because, you see, the way in which her mind works is that unimaginative, the silly girl.

Al’s able to reassure her that the youths who assaulted her were all punished, by which he means assaulted and degraded. Now, I don’t know much – nothing, really – about the New Zealand criminal justice system. And I acknowledge that the first world had and has a vast amount still to do in respect of the way in which the victims of sexual violence are treated. But I’m having difficulty in believing that, in the late 90s, police officers would take the view that the best way of dealing with the gang-rape of a 15-year-old girl would be to give the perpetrators a bit of a kicking.

Al, meantime, makes his lounge-lizardy move on Robin, possibly involving a roofie in the red wine, which marks him out as sleazy at least, predatory at worst, and either way probably in the Tui frame, to the extent that anyone apart from the viewers was bothering about that this week. And Robin is starting to unravel: it’s clear that coming back to her mother, and her childhood home, is having a predictably devastating impact on her; she stabs Sarge, who was involved in the attack on her, and has to be dragged away by new FWB Johnno, who’s entertaining her while she tries to decide whether to marry her fiancé. Elisabeth Moss is brilliant, of course, and the scenery is still good.

But, as before, the part of this show which deals with the investigation is better than the other part. And there’s the problem: more or less the whole of the first half of the episode was given over to the Sisterhood of the Shipping Containers, and specifically Matt’s attempt to woo one of them. Now, this might be my fault. I may have missed, or forgotten about, something which happened in the first couple of weeks. I had Matt pegged as violent, psychopathic, misogynist in general, and disdainful of the Sisterhood in particular. But no; this week he turns up with a bunch of flowers intending to ask one of them out (Bunny, who last week paid for sex with Sarge the rapist), and when he’s knocked back he successfully asks another one out (Anita, her of the chimp). They go to dinner. They go to bed. They take ecstasy. It’s almost unwatchable.

It’s the poorest episode so far, then, by a long way. As there are only another three to go I’ll probably keep watching, but any more than that and I’d be reconsidering.

Top of the Lake ep 2

The hunt is on for missing pregnant 12-year-old Tui, assumed by Robin (Elisabeth Moss) to have been abducted. Tui’s father Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), on the other hand, seems to be fairly relaxed about it; she’s out there somewhere, he suggests, using the survival skills he’s taught her. He’s behaving like a man who knows or doesn’t care where Tui is, and we’ve seen enough of him to believe that either is possible. We’re clearly being steered towards believing Matt to be in some way responsible, though – that shaft of light under the door – and I’m not yet sure that I buy that.

Robin is keeping her options open: there’s a well-observed scene in which she addresses an incident room full of tough old male cops, who very evidently don’t much care for the fancy big city girl who’s a so-called specialist. Before they run off, she just about manages to brief them on possible suspects: as well as Matt and his sons, there’s Wolfgang, local barman and convicted paedophile. Still, the conventions of the filmed drama need to be observed, so when Robin goes to Wolfgang’s house to investigate further, she doesn’t do so at noon with a team of cops backing her up. Of course not; she goes at night, on her own, and inevitably runs into a whole lot of trouble with the gun-toting sex-case, from which Johnno rescues her, to the sound of Split Enz. She thanks him later, in a pub bathroom. Nor is Johnno her only admirer: as she struggles with her feelings for out-of-sight fiancé Steve, it’s starting to look as if local senior cop Al is taking an interest.

One thing which isn’t yet clear is just how close Al is to Matt and the Mitcham dynasty, although he knows his place in the local hierarchy. And Al, presumably, deliberately starts a fire when he mock-casually tells Matt about Wolfgang’s past. When the pitchfork-wielding locals find out about this sort of thing, as in Broadchurch, there’s only one way it’s going to end; and, sure enough, Wolfgang kills himself. Apparently. (The suicide note, probably written in crayon by one of the Mitcham boys, is purportedly a confession, which means we can rule Wolfgang out as well.) There is, in short, very little which is original about the investigation side of the show, but it’s watchable and well-made; the scenery is astonishing, and Moss is great, whether throwing up or throwing darts at sexist dullards. (Although if her vomiting means what it does in EVERY DRAMA WITH A WOMAN OF CHILDBEARING AGE EVER that’ll be a significant strike against the show.)

I still can’t quite work out the point of GJ and her shipping-container commune, though. Whether paying a random barfly for a fuck, or going on about that effing chimp, the women continue to be, at best, unfriendly caricatures. They might be necessary to the plot but, as yet, there’s no sign of how that will come to pass. It will be recalled that in the last episode they were “boring the tits off” Matt; they’re now doing the same with me, and it runs a real risk of unbalancing the show. “So what happens here?” the husband of one of the women demands at one point. Good question; and one which will need to be answered in due course for the show as a whole. Two episodes in, it’s good but not great.

Top of the Lake ep 1

The first scene might suggest that we’re getting another take on the Forbrydelsen story – a Kiwi Broadchurch, if you will – as a 12-year old cycles through a jaw-droppingly beautiful New Zealand landscape, then dismounts and wanders into a lake, seemingly intent on committing suicide. What happens thereafter, though, is refreshingly different. The girl, Tui, is interrupted, and after a medical examination at school it turns out that she is pregnant.

Fortunately, Sydney detective Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss), a specialist in such matters, is visiting her ill mother, who lives locally. Robin is asked to help out over the heads of the local cops, who are strongly implied not to have too much truck with fancy big-city specialist cops. She establishes communication with the girl, although not to the point where the identity of the father is disclosed, and she is then returned to the custody of her father Matt (Peter Mullen). This might be a problem – we’ve already seen Matt and his sons to be a dangerous and violent lot, responsible for the death of a local real estate agent who sold the rights to a piece of land to which Matt thought he had rights.

Robin has her own history in the area, hinted at but as yet not made explicit. This sort of thing is right in Moss’s wheelhouse, but what’s striking about her performance is the stillness, watchfulness, and empathy she brings to her portrayal of Robin, subtly different from the occasionally jittery Peggy in Mad Men. I’m not attuned to the native accent, so I have no idea whether Moss’s attempt at it is good or not, but importantly it doesn’t get in the way; it’s an excellent performance.

Around 80% of this seems to have an overtly feminist message. Men are mostly bastards; domestic abusers, murderers, or impregnators of 12-year-old girls at worst; well-meaning but unsympathetic fools at best. The other 20%, though, takes the shape of a feminist collective under the supervision of Holly Hunter’s almost shamanistic “GJ”. The women here – all damaged – speak and act, in the main, like a parody of how an unsympathetic man would imagine the women in a feminist collective to speak and act. It’s going to be an important group, however, as they tie into the story in two crucial ways: as a focus for the anger of Matt and his sons, and very probably as a refuge for Tui.

I enjoyed it, though, and I have a feeling that there’s more and better to come. As ever, the bottom line with a first episode is whether it will make me want to watch the second episode, and Top of the Lake passes that test comfortably.