TV review: The great Lakes let down

Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin in Top Of The Lake. Photograph: BBC / See Saw Films / Parisa Taghizadeh
14 Aug 2013 @ 1.22 pm
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Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin in Top Of The Lake. Photograph: dBBC / See Saw Films / Parisa Taghizadeh
Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin in Top Of The Lake. Photograph: BBC / See Saw Films / Parisa Taghizadeh

Top Of The Lake, BBC2, Saturday
The Americans, ITV, Saturday
Doctor Who

I am all at sea in my search for the right metaphor to describe Top Of The Lake. This Saturday night BBC drama flagship went off the rails weeks ago.

Top Of The Lake’s credentials take some beating. It’s great that a cinema director of Jane Campion’s stature (The Piano and An Angel At My Table) turned to the small screen.

There was a starring role for Elisabeth Moss (Mad Men, The West Wing) as the police officer specialising in child abuse cases, and then we had the breath-taking New Zealand landscape.

Alas, it all proved a great let-down. I staggered through three episodes before giving up.

So what was wrong with Top Of The Lake? The first episode had some of the flavour of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, weird and occasionally unsettling, like 1960s psychedelic rock music. Not a bad starting point, but it very quickly went the way of prog rock, indulgent and lacking direction.

Too much was asked of the cast. From Moss to Holly Hunter and Peter Mullan they were all fine, but it’s impossible for any actors to convey what’s going on in their head if the script gives them (and us) too little assistance. Top Of The Lake committed the biggest sin of them all by becoming plain boring.

One male critic who did buy into the drama said that the defining moment of episode one, when viewers surely sat up and took notice, came when one of the women in the commune talked about the size of men’s penises. She said: “I really like the ones that are bigger.”

Well, it might have done the trick for him but I have to confess that it made little difference to my opinion of the show, one way or the other.

Matthew Rhys, filming in York recently, plays Philip Jennings in The Americans. Photograph: ITV
Matthew Rhys, filming in York recently, plays Philip Jennings in The Americans. Photograph: ITV

On ITV, and overlapping in the schedules, The Americans might be less ambitious but it is a bigger attraction.

To return to the mixed metaphors, this show steps up to the plate and plays a much straighter bat: great premise, good characters, solid story lines and interesting moral dilemmas.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are the couple planted by the KGB in a smart US suburb. The tension between them has always been palpable, partly because it’s an arranged marriage courtesy of the KGB but also because they are not ideologically matched.

Philip (Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, recently seen filming in York as Mr Darcy for Death Comes to Pemberley) has remained loyal to the USSR – just about.

But Elizabeth’s Marxist credentials are so impeccably correct that, if she’d been despatched to the Gulags (loyalty to the cause not always being adequate protection), she would probably have tried to justify the regime’s decision to herself.

I’ve always considered it a comforting sign of history’s unpredictability that the world was a safer place after Ronald Reagan’s eight years in the White House. His “evil empire” rhetoric makes the early 1980s an interesting era to set The Americans, albeit with the occasional need to suspend disbelief.

Washington in those days seems to have been a good place to murder people in public and dispose of the bodies without the slightest threat of disturbance by inconvenient passers-by.

Watching The Americans, and seeing the nicely posh Nigel Havers on Who Do You Think You Are? recently, brought to mind Sleepers, an excellent BBC comedy drama from the early 1990s (and therefore the Glasnost-era).

As in The Americans, two agents had been planted in the West, but then forgotten by the Soviets. This allows the spies, Havers and Warren Clarke, to merge seamlessly into British life as, respectively, a City financier and a north-west factory worker. The respectively is, on reflection, no doubt superfluous.

In Sleepers, the spies are reactivated by Moscow. It’s the last thing they want. They meet up in a pub to discuss tactics.

“Is it true you earn all that money in the City?” asks Clarke.

“Yes,” says Havers.

“Then get the drinks in, you southern smart arse.”

Well done to the new Doctor Who. It’s nice to see the BBC has decided to Give Age A Chance, and with a man who loves the programme to boot.

The BBC news featured a piece of Doctor Who fan mail from the letters page of an old Radio Times, written by Peter Capaldi (aged 15) of Glasgow.

I was glad when the decision had finally been made. All this speculation about announcements is apparently a weakness of the British media. In Europe and the US, they are more willing to wait for such events to take place before the discussions begin.

Not that I will be watching. Doctor Who is a children’s TV show, albeit a good one. There’s something not quite grown up about adults who watch such fare.

Perhaps they’re the same people who worked their way through all the Harry Potters, instead of stopping at book four when they doubled in size.