Screen Test

TV reviews: Jane Campion's Top Of The Lake is a gripping crime drama, dramedy Casual has indie vibe

Elisabeth Moss in Top Of The Lake.
Elisabeth Moss in Top Of The Lake.PHOTO: SEE-SAW (TOTL) HOLDINGS

Casual is a comedy-drama that takes a frank and funny look at dating, while Top Of The Lake is a gripping crime drama with secrets, violence and abuse

Top Of The Lake is an atmospheric crime drama from Oscar-winning film-maker Jane Campion that revolves around the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl, Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe), who is five months pregnant, but refuses to say who the father is.

The case - set in a scenic lakeside town in New Zealand's South Island - is being investigated by detective Robin Griffin (Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss), who specialises in sexual assault cases and happens to be visiting from Sydney.

Home to see her sick mother, she finds herself drawn into a web of murky relationships among various tight-lipped townsfolk as she tries to work out who impregnated Tui. And her search for the girl eventually surfaces not just their secrets, but some of Robin's own.

The key players are the menacing local drug lord Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan), who is Tui's father; local detective sergeant Al Parker (David Wenham), who resents Robin's interference; Robin's high-school flame Johnno; and a cantankerous spiritual guru, GJ (Holly Hunter), who ruffles feathers when she sets up a makeshift refuge for troubled women in the area.

The six-part series, which first aired overseas four years ago, is much more than just a whodunit. Campion signals this right away by conjuring up a misty, painted-from- watercolours town and perilously freezing lake whose beauty chills you to the bone, as well as recalling the hauntingly lovely hamlet in David Lynch's original Twin Peaks (1990 to 1991).

One of the virtues of non-Hollywood dramas is their shorter seasons. Having only six episodes to play with, the writing here is spare and tight, elegantly unfurling a gripping narrative about an insular community plagued by secrets, violence and abuse.

  • VIEW IT / TOP OF THE LAKE

  • BBC First (StarHub TV Channel 522) and BBC Player, debuts on Friday

    4/5 stars

    CASUAL

    Sony Channel (Singtel TV Channel 316, StarHub TV Channel 510), Wednesdays, 8.30pm

    3/5 stars

Moss and the rest of the ensemble cast, including a characteristically crusty Hunter, turn in understated but convincing performances.

Some viewers will see the explosive denouement coming and some loose ends are tied up a little too tidily. But Campion - whose 1993 film The Piano won Oscars for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Screenplay - has such a firm grip on the atmospherics, as well as on the ache of loss, that it is thoroughly absorbing nonetheless.

The show is also about to unveil its long-awaited second season, Top Of The Lake: China Girl, starring Moss, Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie. It made a splash when it screened at Cannes recently and will debut globally, including in Singapore, later this year.

The comedy-drama Casual makes for a far less intense viewing experience.

Newly divorced after finding her husband cheating on her with a younger woman, Valerie (Michaela Watkins), an uptight therapist pushing 40, moves in with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), a man-child who finds himself perennially single despite having founded a popular dating app.

The show takes a frank and funny, if not especially fresh, look at the world Valerie is now plunged into - casual dating, with its one-night stands, age- inappropriate hook-ups and awkward encounters with exes.

She and Alex are also forced to reckon with their broken family relationships, including their less-than-ideal childhood.

At the same time, they must find a way to not condemn Valerie's precocious, boundary-testing teenage daughter Laura (Tara Lynne Barr) to an equally dysfunctional upbringing.

On paper, this reads a bit like a conventional cohabitation sitcom - a variation on the mismatched- roommates-finding-common- ground trope from series such as The Odd Couple (1970 to 1975, plus the 2015 to 2017 remake) and New Girl (2011 to present).


(From left) Tommy Dewey, Tara Lynne Barr and Michaela Watkins star in Casual. PHOTO: LIONS GATE TELEVISION

Where Casual differs is with its laidback pace and naturalistic, indie-film sensibilities - there are no laugh tracks or cutesy comedy set pieces here, although Season 1 (there are three) is intermittently, albeit bleakly, humorous.

As a family drama, it is somewhat in the vein of the acclaimed Amazon series Transparent.

The insights and lightbulb moments are a little sparse, but the writers appear in no hurry to rush the characters' personal journeys and the show meanders to a season finale that isn't so much a cliffhanger as a faintly sketched question mark.

The only consistent unifying theme here seems to be that relationships are inherently messy, which, depending on how charitable you feel, is either empathetic or a little wishy-washy.

But it is certainly something most people can relate to, which makes the show amply watchable.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 28, 2017, with the headline 'Hook-ups, muck-ups and murky relationships'. Print Edition | Subscribe