Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Top Of The Lake | Lefsetz Letter


Richard Griffiths told me to watch it. But it was unavailable on the Big 3, i.e. Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. And I’m reluctant to subscribe to any more services, I feel like the system is beating me. How come I can’t just pay one price for everything, like Spotify, give me the number and I’ll pay it, because there’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to watch a show and finding out not only is it not on any service you’re paying for, but it’s not available at all. Think of a tune and you can hear it instantly. Think of a movie or TV show…good luck!

Actually, I’m about ready to lay down for Acorn, which has all the BBC shows. We paid for MHz, but after watching “A French Village,” I didn’t find any other must-see TV so I canceled it. I could not figure out how to cancel on the screen or online, so I called up Amazon and they were nice about it, but I felt it was all subterfuge, they wanted to make it difficult. My shrink told me to order on Roku, because it’s easy to cancel on their website, I checked, this appears to be true. However, Roku doesn’t have HBO Max. And our “Smart” Samsung in the bedroom ain’t so smart, it only provides the Big 3 apps, and there’s no way to add a Roku without a wire showing, and this is anathema to Felice.

It shouldn’t be this difficult.

We’ve watched all the A level material. Once again, the “New York Times” is my guide:

“The 30 Best International TV Shows of the Decade”:

Yes, the international shows are better, superior, but when I ask someone what they’re watching they frequently talk about network, or basic cable or one of the traditional premium outlets, like HBO, Showtime, Starz, et al. It’s like they’re lax and unadventurous. And they’re lambs led to the slaughter. They watch what is hyped, what the service recommends, and that’s death. I wish a machine could tell me what to watch, but so far it can’t. As for what’s hyped in the news, I ignore it. One day you see the placed story, by the publicist, the series sounds intriguing, then the reviews come out and it turns out it’s junk. And you wonder why people don’t trust the media.

So, “Top of the Lake” is so strange… Not David Lynch strange, but Jane Campion strange. As in the woman behind “The Piano.” It’s kinda like that, intriguing, yet slow and confusing, but you’re drawn to the show because it’s exotic.

These shows jump around. You read they’re on Netflix, and then they move to Amazon. All of a sudden “Top of the Lake” was available on Hulu, so we started it.

It’s shot in New Zealand, and the landscape is so beautiful, it’s jaw-dropping. And for a while there you don’t know what’s going on, because they talk about Sydney but there are no mountains like this near Sydney…

And the star is Elisabeth Moss. She has never rung true for me. But she rings true here, maybe because she has a New Zealand accent.

And the bottom line is everything looks up to date, but the truth is it’s the boonies, with few ways to make a living, with the locals tattooed and drunk and a lake so forbidding you’re loath to paddle across it, and the water is so cold…

And Holly Hunter is in “Top of the Lake” too. In a minor, but very bizarre role.

But the star of the show is the guy who plays Matt, Peter Mullan. And I’d tell you he reminds me of Jacob Snell from “Ozark,” but he literally is Jacob Snell from “Ozark”! But in this case Mullan’s hair is blonde, long and scraggly and he’s even sharper. And he’s even more dangerous than Jacob Snell.

As for most of the actors, you won’t recognize them, they’re from New Zealand.

So, it’s a lawless town. Everybody’s agreed to look the other way. And some of this lawlessness relates to the economy, and if you shut down the illegal activities, people will have nowhere to work, they’ll have to move to Christchurch to do manual labor for minimum wage.

And I’ve lived in the country. Life is not valued the same way it is in the city. People do bizarre things, like brothers playing chicken on the highway and neither of them blinking and both dying, and it’s hard to explain but it’s real.

So, you’re struck by what is happening, and there’s more than one through line. And the show is so eerie, you can’t turn it off.

I’m not saying you should put “Top of the Lake” on the top of your list, then again, the first season’s got great ratings on RottenTomatoes, 95 and 86: But I didn’t think it was quite that good. And, once again, I won’t watch anything below 80, almost never ever. Shocks me when people recommend shows with bad ratings/reviews. I’ve only got one life, do you expect me to waste my time? And so many do waste their time, but…

I view streaming TV like the movies of yore. They’re the heartbeat of not only America, but the world. If you want to know what is going on, you watch streaming TV. But only the great stuff.

I’m a completist. You can only evaluate the landscape if you’ve seen everything. And at this point I’ve seen all the A level shows on the Big 3, I know the score, so I guess I’ve got to sign up for Acorn and the other services to fill in the holes.

Sure, there are some phenomena, like “The Tiger King,” and the first season of “Stranger Things”… That’s another thing about Netflix shows, they tend not to be able to live up to the first season. As if the first season was done on a lark and when it was successful the creators were inhibited, like a musician trying to follow up his huge debut, which represents his entire life up to that point, very few can equal the initial success.

And the funny thing is music is about commerce, but streaming TV is not. As long as you’re paying for the service, they’ll churn stuff out. Ratings are not really relevant. Oh, they’ll cancel a show, but they’re always taking swings of the bat. And they give the creators freedom, and to reach the brass ring, to capture the zeitgeist, you must leave the talent unfettered, people must follow their dream. Sometimes they follow it off a cliff, but…

This is so different from the major label music business. Spotify doesn’t care what you listen to, but the Big 3 labels do. And the marketing costs are so high that they massage the music, make you get a cowriter, a remix, a redo, because you see income is based on the number of streams, which is not the case with streaming TV. If you could subscribe to Universal, or Sony or Warner, it might be different, but that is never going to happen.

And since making TV is expensive, there’s less in the channel, quality rises to the surface if you’re looking for it. And the hype is irrelevant. There’s the aforementioned Rotten Tomatoes, you can do independent research, you can discover whether a show is worth watching or not.

And so many are.

Is “Top of the Lake”?

Well, one thing’s for sure, when you watch it you’ll want to go to New Zealand, it’s a great advertisement for tourism. But it will also have you questioning your life, your choices, the coherence of the environment around you. We’re all looking to be found. But many are too fearful to be lost. But only by venturing into the unknown do you have a chance of being fully realized, of being located.

Once again, there’s a basic plot to “Top of the Lake,” but that’s almost secondary, to the vignettes, to the personalities, to the mood.

This is a show that engenders conversation. And that’s what great art does, stimulate our brains to ponder, to engage, to develop.

I don’t know where they’re going to go with season two.

But I’m gonna watch it.


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