Grace Dent on TV: Top of the Lake, BBC2, and Ray Donovan, Sky Atlantic
Holly Hunter lets her hair down as Prime Suspect meets Twin Peaks in a cracking Kiwi crime mystery
With irony, just as Britain experienced real summer, the gods of television gave us some excellent reasons to stay indoors. Top of The Lake – an excellent New Zealand crime drama with Holly Hunter and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss –appeared on BBC2 last week and won my heart as a “TV Pick of 2013” in under 10 minutes. Appearances about this show were deceptive: the promo shots feature Moss and some nameless mournful sat on a porch in abject misery. The blurb talks of a missing child, an isolated lake, the detective's dying mother and disputes over land. Not the juiciest of marketing campaigns. The poor show didn't even have subtitles to lure in the BBC4 crowd who are sure that everything is just a bit better if they're reading it second hand in a Scandinavian language, missing 80 per cent of the nuance.
There's no trend for New Zealand drama right now. Plus, when confronted with the director Jane Campion's name, it's customary for cultured folk to wrinkle their noses and mumble about Campion's more recent film works – which they haven't actually seen – but have heard aren't as strong as The Piano, which they don't remember watching either.
In truth, what Campion has achieved with Top of the Lake is quite incredible, Prime Suspect meets Twin Peaks with shades of Tenko and Sons of Anarchy. It's compelling, multi-layered and at times bloody funny. In a the small, remote town of Laketop, New Zealand, a young girl called Tui Mitcham tries to drown herself. Robin Griffin (Moss) is a police inspector from Sydney, back in Laketop visiting her mother, who steps in to interview the girl about her reasoning. Laketop is, one can safely say, a less than forward-thinking community. The men are “real men”, akin to cavemen or gorillas in denim and the women are indoors peeling spuds. Laketop Pride March would be a very sedate affair. Just like DCI Jane Tennison in Nineties London, Detective Griffin quickly realises that the grim, far-reaching reasons behind Tui's suicide bid aren't of massive importance to the established patriarchy of Laketop. Tui's father (Peter Mullan) is a lawless, gun-toting, dog- obsessed weapons-grade bully. He's also good friends with DCI Al Parker, head of the Queenstown Police Station. Alongside this tale of rural misogyny and small-town folklore runs a plot about the arrival of a women's commune led by GJ (Holly Hunter).
Hunter is an androgynous guru figure with silver hair to her waist and an otherworldly aura. She is leading a group of emotionally awry Australian, European and American women to live a simple life of healing in the wilderness, sleeping in metal shipyard cargo boxes. I could watch a whole series alone devoted to Peter Mullan bubbling angrily, trying to outsmart and lay the law down to Hunter. The clashing of these communities is delicious. Into a world where women appear to be mainly barmaids and brood mares – and where, it begins to transpire, rape, child abuse and corruption are rife – come a group of lefty, tree-hugging, bra-less divorcées talking loudly about their vulvas.
Not quite as good, but definitely watchable is Sky Atlantic's new import Ray Donovan, starring Liev Schreiber, Jon Voight, Eddie Marsan, Elliott Gould and James Woods. Ray Donovan is by far and away the worst title for an exciting new Sopranos meets Entourage-style Hollywood fixer/gangster show imaginable. Ray Donovan sounds like the B&Q North-west area manager driving crossly up and down the M6 to supervise the big “20% off sheds” promotion. In truth, Ray seems to have a lot more going on than that. Almost too much for one man one could say. He's chasing stalkers, he's hiding corpses, he's dealing with crazed agents, he's heading up a team of sleuths and heavies. And he doesn't appear to do any of these things with particular aplomb. Ray's “the best in the business” characters keep saying throughout episode one. I'd like to see his references, please. By the end of episode one, Ray had physically assaulted the same stalker twice and not deterred him in the slightest. The bloke was back jerking off on the Hollywood starlet's balcony, “wanking business as usual”.
Ray Donovan has such an excellent cast and so many brilliant characters – his boxing coach brother (Marsan), his ne'er-do-well father (Voight) and the myriad messed-up Hollywood actor egomaniacs all needing their tracks covered – that this show could be either utterly amazing or could quickly plunge into chaotic awfulness. Ray has a happy family life in Calabasas with a good, faithful, fun wife and beautiful children, but he was seen shouting the terrible portent in episode one, just as his father appeared: “Don't let my father near our family or he will destroy everything we have worked for!” I rather like the glamour and intrigue of behind-closed-doors Hollywood, but the grottiness, sobbing and misery, I could get anywhere. Good luck, Ray, I'm on the fence, it's all to play for.
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