Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Top of the Lake: a viewing diary


Introducing the New Zealand show Top of the Lake (2013)

This week I launch my first viewing diary since The Prisoner. The first episode will be reviewed on Friday, and new entries will follow every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday through the end of the year. Top of the Lake is a mystery set in the murky mountain town of Laketop, on South Island. The show stars Elisabeth Moss, whom I simultaneously began watching on Mad Men (at the pace I'm going, that particular viewing diary won't be published for years); here she plays an urban detective who joins a local police investigation in her rural hometown. Top of the Lake is co-written and co-directed by Jane Campion, whose Bright Star I reviewed in 2010 (I featured a couple of her short films in my #WatchlistScreenCaps exercise a few years later). I've yet to see most of her features but consider her work A Girl's Own Story one of the strongest short films of the eighties and also admire The Piano, so I was looking forward to this series going in.


complete directory of season 1
(*these links will work on the day of publication)









The Netflix/Sundance Version (which episodes I'm watching)

Logistics turned out to be incredibly complicated. There are two versions of Top of the Lake available to American viewers. On DVD, the show follows the BBC structure of six episodes; streaming on Netflix, the show uses the Sundance Channel breakdown of seven episodes. The BBC episodes have titles and a single director for each episode (whereas the Sundance episodes often have two), suggesting that the production was organized around longer individual episodes and then the same material was divided up into shorter episodes to fill a longer run in America. So in other words, the British pilot has its ending chopped off and attached to the beginning of the second American episode. This shifts a bit more of the second episode's end to the beginning of the third episode and so on until the sixth American episode contains hardly any of the sixth British one, most of which has been shifted to a brand new "episode seven." Confused? I certainly was. Here's a picture:


At least I'm pretty sure that's what happened. If anyone has more details, please let me know in the comments below and I'll update the post accordingly.

I decided to stream the show on Netflix, and only discovered after three episodes that I was locked into a slightly skewed version of the series. Nonetheless, I don't regret it - this is likely the version that most of my readers will have seen so it makes sense to give it priority. Still, it does muddle discussion of the different directors' input, and occasionally disrupts the narrative flow (the end of the penultimate episode feels particularly abrupt). Still, the writers probably knew they would have to write for two different structures because even these cannibalized episodes tend to end in cliffhangers. It's a little embarrassing for me to go back and read my notes on the episodic structures now that I know more about their creation, but it is what it is. This is a viewing diary - sometimes I figure things out as I go.


I hope readers who've seen the show will enjoy re-visiting it, and if anyone watches along with this diary (either over the next several weeks, or coming back to these posts in coming months and years), I hope you'll comment and leave your own reflections and speculations on each entry. I will probably cover season two either live as it airs (it was shot last year in Hong Kong, with Nicole Kidman making an appearance) or catching up at a later date if it coincides with too much other activity on the blog. However, those will probably be shorter entries, in accordance with my new viewing diary format (a paragraph on the story and a paragraph on my own reflections). This diary for season one - which I wrote over the spring and summer - is more in-depth, with about five paragraphs each.

See you on Friday for "Paradise Sold".

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